blog #6- sketches from the Dunhuang cave-sites


The two articles, Formulas of creativity: Artist’s sketches and techniques of copying at Dunhuang by Sarah Fraser and Buddhist cave-temples and the Cao family by Ma Shicheng both focus on the documents discovered at the 5 major cave-sites in Dunhuang, namely Mogao Ku, and their implications in our understanding of premodern artistic techniques. The excavations from the Dunhuang cave-sites are the earliest known preliminary sketches by artists ever discovered so thereby these sketches allow us to gain an insight into the methods undertaken by artists in preparation for their works of art, which in this case range from wall murals to religious artwork such as statues of the Buddha and accompanying bodhisattvas. The artists’ preparatory work also varied greatly as while ceiling murals were preliminarily sketched out in miniature form, paintings on silk banners were sketched out in life-size form. Another important aspect of these excavations is that the preliminary sketches of the artists helped the archaeologists determine which of the items were taken arbitrarily over the centuries from its original site as it was highly common for the imperial powers, especially the British to claim ownership of their excavations at these cave-sites and take back to Britain especially in the early 20th century. For instance, archaeologists were able to identify a missing statue of the Buddha in one of the Cave-shrines by consulting the sketches. Conclusively, although the artists’ sketches found in the Dunhuang cave-sites are not valued artwork in their own right, their true value lies in their conveyance of subtle characteristics of the final art pieces as well as the artistic techniques employed at the time by the artists at Dunhuang.


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