The Wall Street Journal, The Old Made New

January 20, 2015

Inspired by Dunhuang:
Re-Creation in Contemporary Chinese Art
China Institute
Through June 8
New York

Viewing “Inspired by Dunhuang,” the China Institute’s show of modern artwork, you find yourself at the crossroads of three converging stories: the thousand-year history of desert cave murals at Dunhuang, China; the story of recent Chinese artists influenced by them; and the story of the China Institute itself.

Founded in New York in 1926 by prominent American and Chinese educators, including the philosopher John Dewey, to educate Americans in China’s language and culture, the establishment is a beguiling example of the old, enduring “American Century” initiatives. In 1944, it moved to the elegant, four-story Manhattan townhouse where it has stayed, a gift from Henry Luce. The two gallery rooms on the first floor have presented exhibitions about China ever since, often the only place to do so during the long decades when that country seemed bewilderingly hermetic and troubled.

The show offers 34 works by 15 artists from the 1940s onward and is co-curated by gallery director Willow Weilan Hai and Princeton professor Jerome Silbergeld. According to Mr. Silbergeld, the initial room educates us with illustrations of Dunhuang’s continuing cultural echoes, while the next room has stand-alone, powerful works by living artists.

But, first, a little background. Monks originally settled among the warren of 735 caves, on the edge of China’s empire abutting the Silk Road, because of the dazzling and mystical appeal of a nearby mountain whose mica content glistened after rainfalls. Roughly from the fourth to the 14th centuries, the monks or their guests illustrated 492 caves with some 148,000 square feet of murals and more than 2,000 sculptures. To this day almost nothing is known about who the artists were. They depicted the Buddha and his adventures, incarnations, parables, bodhisattvas (saints), donor portraits and the like in glorious, multicolored representations done by torchlight. (The artists put up their own plaster or gesso on the cave walls.)

During the centuries of Mongol rule, landscape and literati scroll paintings take over, and the way of life at Dunhuang peters out, until about 1900 when the caves are rediscovered and soon frequented by acquisitive foreigners. Such activity in the next decades supplies the museums of the West, of Russia and Japan and elsewhere, with glorious examples of Dunhuang’s visual treasures—a controversial issue to this day. Yet it hardly makes a dent in the total panoply.

Further lessons on how values have changed come with the story of Zhang Daqian’s remarkable life. Zhang visited Dunhuang in the wartime 1940s. A Chinese patrician scholar, expert copier and accomplished artist in his own right, he later became notorious for creating fakes of traditional landscapes that ended up in Western museums. (He died in 1983 in Taiwan.) According to Mr. Silbergeld, Zhang’s signed artworks sold for $507 million in 2011, the highest total sum by any artist in one year, beating out Picasso as No. 1. During his visit to Dunhuang, assisted by his four wives and uncounted offspring, Zhang did meticulous scholarly tracings of numerous friezes as a record for posterity. He then painstakingly chipped off top layers, discarded them, and traced the next layers. Chinese colleagues were so astounded that, finally and for the first time, they prompted the government to set up a watchdog authority over the site. Examples, in the first gallery, of Zhang’s beautiful small floating figures, though pastiches, give a striking sense of the originals.

Nearby, there are sumptuously colorful page proofs for recent schoolbooks of exactly rendered Dunhuang figures and their dress patterns. In a long glass case, one sees a lateral scroll of exquisite calligraphic poetry in praise of the caves’ mystical history. On a monitor screen, one can watch a Bambi-like Chinese television cartoon series based on animals from the friezes. A wall display tells us about Yuan Yunsheng, now a highly successful artist in China, famous for being the first to have work censored in the early post-Mao years. In 1979, he executed a commission for murals inside a new Beijing airport terminal, featuring some nude female figures. The airport authorities, alarmed at the nudes, consulted the then premier, Hua Guofeng, who came in person to give a verdict. In a rather Solomonic judgment, part of the mural was covered over. In the show, Mr. Yuan’s half-clothed Bodhisattva scroll speaks eloquently of Dunhuang’s aesthetic influence on his work.

Upon entering the second gallery, you are struck by the quality of masterpieces on view, all by living artists. Liu Dan’s highly skillful ink-on-paper exploration of the elements compels the realization that great art makes itself known whatever the cultural divide. He, too, visited the caves. Zhang Hongtu’s “Dunhuang Study No. 7” (1981) depicts humanoid simian figures dancing above a terrace of rocks that look like frozen flames, directly evocative of sixth-century narrative murals.

Slowly, you begin to notice the ceiling frieze overhead of four giant canvas panels by Yu Hong. In her catalog interview, she talks of visiting the caves in 1986, “when all art students were required to go as part of their third-year study.” This has been common practice in China’s top art schools for years, and all of Dunhuang’s painted spaces have ceiling murals. In Ms. Yu ‘s “Questions for Heaven” (2010), the foreshortening implies a viewer looking from below, and some of the figures are looking back down at you. The effect is a pop fusion of Dunhuang and Renaissance ceiling-art traditions startlingly peopled by ordinary modern folk.

The great find, for this reviewer, is the work of Wang Mansheng, whose two ink-on-cardboard landscapes of the rock faces above the caves bewitch the eye and haunt the mind. These are scenes crafted with a precise, realistic brush, but with a soft finish in a spectral light where the landscapes look like visions. He has taken a post-Dunhuang aesthetic tradition, applied it to the local geography, and achieved a kind of geometric abstraction.

One could argue that the China Institute now inhabits a world where its advocacy of Chinese culture has become well-nigh superfluous. Bigger institutions with greater funds daily usurp its metier. Yet, with focused, sublime shows like this one, it still stands out splendidly.

Mr. Kaylan writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.

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