From the archives: Sculptures, Paintings Eroded

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Getty Conservation Institute and China have agreed to collaborate on the conservation of China’s two foremost sites of ancient Buddhist art, involving thousands of sculptures and miles of wall paintings in 545 caves in the northern part of the country. Plans for the international venture were announced Thursday at a press conference in the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles.

The multimillion-dollar project, sponsored by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is the first conservation project in the People’s Republic of China to involve a private foundation from a foreign country. It is also the most ambitious work to date for the seven-year-old Getty institute. A source close to the Getty estimated that the initial diagnostic study alone will cost more than $1 million.

Harold M. Williams, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said the two sites were selected for Getty assistance because they are of “world heritage quality,” they present important challenges for scientific research, and they offer an opportunity to train “a cadre of local conservators.”


Ma Yuzhen, Chinese consul general, said that the two sites, the Mogao and Yungang rock grottoes, are “the most magnificent and best preserved storehouses of ancient Buddhist art” in the world.

Ma said the Chinese “are very happy” that the Getty with UNESCO support has joined in conservation of the sites. “We are fully confident that with the joint efforts of the parties concerned, these two important cultural monuments will be well preserved,” the Chinese diplomat added.

Ma said that China hopes the conservation program will help make it possible for more people to visit the sites, which constitute a panoramic history of Chinese Buddhist art and are among about 70 designated as National Treasures of China. Parts of the sites are now open to tourists, but their relatively remote locations, limited access and meager accommodations have precluded them from most standard two-week tours of China.

Luis Monreal, director of the Getty institute, said, “One of my hopes is that our work will make these sites better known in the West.”

Dating from the 4th Century, the Mogao caves, on the southwestern edge of the Gobi Desert, have suffered extensive damage from sandstorms, smoke, water and earthquakes.

At Yungang, about 200 miles west of Beijing, ground water and salts have destroyed many carvings, which were created in the 5th and 6th centuries, and increased natural fissures in the rock structures. Air pollution from local industry is also a severe problem.

A project budget will not be established until the 18-month diagnostic study of the sites is complete, according to Monreal.

“Whatever the Getty’s investment is, it will be ludicrous in comparison to the value of the sites,” he said.

The Getty will provide expertise in research and technical matters, China will contribute personnel and UNESCO will offer “logistical, technical and financial support,” Monreal said. Williams noted that the Getty will solicit support from the private sector in the form of expertise and materials.

The diagnostic and training phase of the project will begin this summer. Getty personnel are expected to work at the two sites for about five years, after which the Chinese will take over the project, Monreal said.

Initially, there will be about 25 or 30 foreign specialists assigned to the sites, he said. Seven or eight will be members of the Getty’s staff; the others will be consultants to the Getty or UNESCO.

“Our goal is to develop self-sufficiency and expertise within China. There is no way we can do all the work that is needed. We function as a catalyst to help develop resources for conservation,” Monreal said.

The Getty Conservation Institute, now based in Marina del Rey and eventually to be relocated in the Getty Art Center now under construction in Brentwood, is administered by the J. Paul Getty Trust, currently valued at $3 billion. The Getty wealth has led to speculation that the institute will single-handedly cure the world’s conservation problems, but Monreal insists that the organization will stick to its oft-stated mandate: To strengthen conservation resources internationally by consulting and collaborating with other organizations in “synergistic” activities.

Core groups of Chinese conservators are already in place at the rock caves, Monreal said. Getty advisers will work with them to develop a plan to deal with problems of aging, weathering, pollution and other forms of deterioration, he said.

The Mogao caves, by far the larger of the two complexes, is the most important of three ancient Buddhist shrines in the vicinity of Dunhuang. The city lies 1,100 miles west of Beijing in Gansu province. Located on the old Silk Road traveled by traders between China, Central Asia and the Near East, Dunhuang was a center of Buddhist learning from the 5th to the 11th centuries.

The shrine at Mogao is carved into sandstone cliffs facing a verdant valley. More than 500 caves, roughly divided into five strata, were created over a period of 1,000 years, beginning in AD 366. Some of the grottoes have been destroyed by nature and civilization, but 492 caves remain along a mile-long cliff face. The caves are filled with about 484,200 square feet of wall paintings and 2,000 carved and painted sculptures of Buddha. The most spectacular is a 108-foot Buddha.

According to Chinese legend, a Buddhist monk named Yue Zun established the Mogao shrine in the desert oasis after seeing beams of light there. He is said to have cut out the first cave and the first statue of Buddha. His successors carved and decorated hundreds of additional caves during subsequent centuries. Their stone reliefs and wall paintings illustrate the 1,000-year evolution of Buddhist religious art in China. Secular paintings illuminate life styles of the Chinese court and ordinary citizens.

The site was apparently abandoned during a late 11th-Century invasion. It was discovered around 1900 by Wang Yuanlu, a Buddhist monk who fled from a famine and resettled in the oasis. He found murals behind heaps of sand and eventually broke through a wall that seemed to be hollow. Finding chambers full of art, documents and ritual vessels, he requested conservation assistance from the Qing court but was told to reseal the caves.

The monk disobeyed and made an unsuccessful attempt to raise money for conservation. When word of the discovery reached foreign collectors, objects that were not attached to the caves’ walls began to disappear. Sir Aurel Stein of England in 1904 purchased 29 crates of treasures, reportedly for a tiny sum. The following year, French Sinologist Paul Pelliot removed 6,000 scrolls and a group of paintings. Other foreigners cleaned out the remaining loose pieces, many of which are now in museums around the world.

Apparently the only reason that so many artistic riches have remained intact at Mogao and Yungang is that massive sculptures, bas-reliefs and murals were either too large to move or attached to the caves.

The earliest works at Mogao were carved entirely of rock. Later, during the late Sui and Tang periods, artists cut rough forms from rock or built skeletal wooden armatures, then applied clay and modeled it into detailed features and painted the figures.

The Yungang caves lie 10 miles west of Datong, a coal-mining town in Shanxi province. Fifty-three caves are hollowed out of a 1,000-yard expanse of sandstone. Inside the richly decorated caves are 51,000 statues of Buddha, ranging in height from less than 2 inches to a 60-foot figure. This enormous sculpture was once inside a cave, but erosion has caused the surrounding rock to fall away and the Buddha is now exposed to the elements.

Work at Yungang began in 460 (about 100 years later than at Mogao) and was completed in 524. Unlike Mogao, the sculpture at Yungang was originally made entirely of rock, but during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) artists restored the eroded figures by plastering them with mud and painting their surfaces.

Much of this restoration has faded or fallen away from the figures, but Monreal said, “We will not pretend we are Ming emperors and repaint the figures.” In accordance with modern conservation practices, he said the conservation work will “focus on arresting the decay” and preserving the art in its present state as “a historical document.”