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From the Silk Road to Los Angeles: Dunhuang at the Getty

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This Wednesday, May 4, 2016, photo shows a full-scale, hand-painted replica of Cave 320 from China’s Cave Temples of Dunhuang on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The exhibit “Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on the Silk Road” opened Saturday, May 7, and runs until Sept. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

“Cave Temples of Dunhuang,” an important new exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, offers many highlights. In a very rare instance, the British Library has lent a section of the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book which is dated to 868 and found in a Dunhuang cave. For lovers of painting, there are several hauntingly beautiful Buddhist ink-on-silk works, created by unknown masters more than 1,000 years ago. The Musee Guimet, the renowned museum of Asian antiquities in Paris, has also contributed several valuable items.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

Dunhuang, in China’s northwestern Gansu Province, boasts about 500 lavishly decorated cave temples from around the 4th to the 15th centuries, when it was a flourishing oasis town along the Silk Road, one of fabled caravan trails that shuttled goods and cultures between China, India and Europe. Mogao, the main complex, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. To try to communicate the grandeur and history of Dunhuang, a main attraction at the Getty is a group of 1:1 scale recreations of three of the caves. More than just copies, they represent a fascinating aspect of the exciting scholarship going on in Dunhuang today.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

Generations of study, the latest imaging technology and the handiwork of hundreds of researchers and artists resulted in the replica caves. Fabricated a few minutes’ drive from the Mogao complex, in a nondescript low-rise building, teams of craftsmen and painters labored for many months to realize the structures that now occupy the Getty Los Angeles plaza.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

Some researchers spend their entire careers focused on particular aspects of a single cave–like the use of brushstrokes to create lines. When in the caves, the scholars work with limited lighting for conservation reasons. The artists are typically graduates of elite schools like Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, having mastered the use of natural pigments and minutiae like how leaves might have been rendered during the High Tang period.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

Under the watchful eye of Lou Jie, the director of Dunhuang’s art research unit, the caves were fashioned out of fiberglass and wood frames, and meticulously handpainted paper panels that even simulate cracks and damage to the cave paintings. Dozens of China’s most respected academics and artists work with Ms. Lou, an unassuming bespectacled woman who has spent 30 years at the Dunhuang Academy, the Chinese government authority in charge of the study, conservation and management of Dunhuang.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

In an essay, Neville Agnew from the Getty Conservation Institute and one of the main forces behind the current Getty exhibition, quotes Ms. Lou on the work of reproducing the caves http://www.rhfamilyfoundation.org/#!/insight/16 : “With my face to the wall in the dark silence of the cave, stroke by stroke and painting by painting, I have often felt as though I were in direct dialogue with ancient masters… I was gradually immersed in the wall paintings, finally becoming completely submerged in the virtuosity and artistic spirit of the original works. In this state of submersion, I transitioned through the mental states of self, self-forgetting, and no-self, transported as I worked to a world of more than a millennium ago.”jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

To preserve the delicate wall paintings, only 6,000 visitors are allowed into the caves each day. During peak seasons in the spring and fall, over 10,000 mostly Chinese tourists descend on Mogao daily. While the academy’s crowd control is one of the best in China, restrictions to ensure the preservation of the caves and the desire to share the majesty of Dunhuang mean that such replica caves are a crucial tool to simulate the experience of being in the most famous of the caves. Mogao’s museum features a few such facsimile caves. At recent exhibitions in Hong Kong and Shanghai, reproduction caves played a vital role to enhance the visitor experience.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

Dunhuang today is a quiet city of about 200,000 in China’s northwestern Gansu Province. The lone daily direct flight from Beijing takes about three and a half hours. One can also travel from the Chinese capital via Lanzhou, a journey of about six hours. (At some times of the year, a route via Xian is possible, but during “low season” the flight can be suspended for weeks.) At night, surrounded by the Gobi desert, Dunhuang can feel like the edge of the world. For most, the replica caves might be the closest that they ever get to Dunhuang.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

“Cave Temples of Dunhuang” opened on 7 May and continues until 4 September. http://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/cave_temples_dunhuang/index.html Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the Getty Research Institute (GRI), the Dunhuang Academy, and the Dunhuang Foundation, the exhibition is presented with the support of Hong Kong’s Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation.jETSilk Road Adventure & Private Tours - Silk Road China Tours

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