Dunhuang and Becoming Chinese

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

NEW YORK - For anyone who is intrigued by the cross-cultural history of China and the West, myself included, the Silk Road and Dunhuang command a special sphere of imagination and fascination. On the heel of its acclaimed show Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at the Gateway of the Silk Road, China Institute in America Gallery opens a new exhibition that explores how Dunhuang has inspired contemporary Chinese artists.

Gathering of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, mural from ceiling of niche on the west wall of the main chamber in Mogao Cave 321, early Tang dynasty (618–712). (Photo by Li Bo, courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy)

Strategically located at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, the main road connecting Mongolia and Southern Siberia, and the Hexi Corridor leading to the heart of the ancient Chinese capitals, Dunhuang is a religious, cultural and military oasis. It is also the site of legendary caves hiding some of the finest specimens of Buddhist art dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries. With shifting dynastic power and political authorities came multifarious cultural influences. The artistry of these images lends support to a historical view of “Chineseness”– not as a lineal development from a single, indigenous cultural origin, but as the product of cross-pollination of different cultures.

Wang Mansheng, Silence Series (2008), ink and color on paper, 30 x 22 inches.  (Photo: courtesy of the China Institute)

Dunhuang has escaped the atrocities of many historical events due to its remote geographic location. For instance, carved into the side of a cliff, Mogao Caves alone stretch to approximately two kilometers long with 492 caves with 25,000 square meters of wall paintings and 3,000 painted sculptures. Zhang Daqian (also known as Chang Dai-chien), who reportedly outsold Pablo Picasso in total transaction value in 2011, arrived at the caves in 1941 with a small contingent of assistants and stayed for two and a half years to copy the murals. His studies of the Dunhuang style marked an important transformation in his painting style – both in terms of regenerated interest in figure paintings that had been relegated to relative obscurity in classical Chinese painting (such as Spring Melancholy that sold for 16,840,000HKD at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in May) and experimenting with ink splashes and colors in landscape paintings (such as Spring Dawns upon the Colorful Hills that sold for 34,840,000HKD at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October). He then exhibited and published copies of the murals, which helped publicize and spotlight the art of Dunhuang within China. 

Yuan Yunsheng, Dunhuang Sketch No. 7 (1981), ink and color on paper, 53-1/2  x 26-1/2 inches.  (Photo: courtesy of the China Institute).

For Zhang Hongtu, who is known for synthetizing the styles of two master painters, one Chinese and the other Western, within a single oil painting, his Dunhuang trip in 1981 liberated him from the dictates of slavish copying of old masterpieces and gave him a free reign to imagine new possibilities of color combinations. His Study No. 7 re-creates a Dunhuang narrative painting depicting the Eight Beggars Who Went to See the Buddha, showing the eight pilgrims dancing on top of the mountains and bigger than the mountains.

Yu Hong, Questions for Heaven (2010), acrylic on canvas, 196-7/8 x 236-1/4 inches. (Photo: courtesy of the China Institute)

The ancient Dunhuang artists’ reliance on their imagination rather than verisimilitude of observed reality offers a striking contrast to the pedagogical prevalence of the propagandist social realism during the Cultural Revolution.  Therefore, when visiting Dunhuang, painter Liu Dan did not focus his energy on copying individual murals, but rather on taking in the overall styles of the works created throughout the better part of dynastic China. Similarly, Yuan Yunsheng studied Bodhisattvas with a sense of spontaneity, as shown through the fluidity of the brushwork and color pigments, without close regard to realistic replication.

Zhang Daqian, The Beauty (1944), with brushwork in the style of Tang Dynasty (618-907), ink and color on paper, 51-5/8  x 24 inches.  (Photo: courtesy of the China Institute).

A transformative, secular retake of the Dunhuang inspiration is Yu Hong’s Questions for Heaven (2010), which I first saw at her solo show “Golden Sky” (2010) at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing.  Based on the Gathering of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas painted on the ceiling of the main niche located along the west wall of Mogao Cave 321, Questions for Heaven re-constitutes contemporary Chinese life with the pictorial compositions of the Dunhuang murals and Kizil caves, revitalizing the somewhat forgotten perspective of viewing artworks by looking upwards.

Zhang Hongtu, Dunhuang Stutdy No. 7  (1981), ink and gouache on rice paper, 42 x 66 inches. (Photo: courtesy of the China Institute)

Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong’s painter husband, once wrote, “[Allmost every artist has his own story with Dunhuang.” Or, to put it differently, as Willow Weilan Hai, Director of China Institute Gallery and the show’s co-curator, wrote: “Even contemporary art or avant-garde art must have some genetic trace of the past.” Dunhuang art is a genetic trace that bears the rich, diverse inspirations endearing to ancient and contemporary Chinese artists alike.

Inspired by Dunhuang: Re-creation in Contemporary Chinese Art
December 14, 2013 – June 8, 2014
China Institute in America Gallery
New York City

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