A silken detour through Paris

Serinde, Terre De Bouddha
August 9, 1996

This sumptuously produced catalogue records a major exhibition at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, assembled under the leadership of the curators of the Musee Guimet, Paris. The goal of the exhibition and the catalogue was to give an account of the various cultures of the Silk Road, as portrayed in materials from European and Japanese collections. This is an exhibition that could more easily be arranged in the West than in China itself.

Today the Silk Road and the oasis cities that linked it together and made travel possible around the two sides of a very inhospitable basin lie in the most westerly province of China. The terrain is still inhospitable, and the inhabitants are, as they have been for the past two millennia and probably longer, representatives of many cultures and religions. For this is a border land between the Indian subcontinent and the territories of Iran on the west and the heartlands of China in the east.

The area was explored in the early years of the 20th century by Sir Aurel Stein from Britain, Sven Hedin from Sweden, Albert Grunwedel and Arthur von Le Coq from Germany, and teams from Japan and Russia. Although the memories of these explorers and scholars are reviled by the Chinese, study of the area is only once more beginning again. In the intervening 50 years or more the Buddhist sites and vanished cities have lain pretty much untouched by spade or scholarship.

The exhibition reunited fragments of the history of a vast region that has been separated by institutional boundaries. It was a rare occasion to see paintings from the great Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang housed in the British Museum and the Musee Guimet displayed with fragments of Central Asian wall paintings from Berlin and related material from collections in St Petersburg and Tokyo.

It also provided a fine opportunity to unite the scholarship of these different countries to produce a joint catalogue. The entries were written by the curators from the institutions involved. The catalogue provides much more than a reminder of a dazzling exhibition. It is a monument to the study carried out in many parts of the world here brought together for the first time.

The finds from the cities of Central Asia have always filled the lay imagination with wonder. The rulers of these realms patronised Buddhism and supported artisans, who decorated large complexes of caves with fine wall paintings. Many did not survive the Islamic conquest of Central Asia or the inroads of the 20th century. But the cave paintings were supplemented by fine paintings on silk and paper prepared in these monasteries for sale to devout laymen.

The dry conditions of these desert areas have preserved delicate materials, wood and stucco, as well as paintings on silk and paper. Such materials have by and large perished in the centre of China, although comparable pieces, if on a smaller scale, have been preserved in Japan. Buddhist sites were, and are, important repositories of the artisans' skills and of the different strains of the Buddhist religion established in the lands to the west of China proper.

Such material must always have been provincial by comparison with the great sculptures in the monasteries of China's capitals or in the kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent. For this reason, study of the Silk Road has not assumed great importance in China, despite the abundance of rare materials preserved along the route. Scholars in the West have indeed often led the way.

Yet even in the West, such subjects have been relatively little advanced over the past 50 years. Over the past ten years the Dunhuang programme at the British Library has done excellent work in furthering study of the many manuscripts from the site and in enabling their publication in China. The present exhibition catalogue complements some of this bibliographic work with a survey and analysis of the paintings and sculptures.

The volume is very well produced with fine colour pictures of most exhibits, some of them a full page in size. A new generation of scholars is embarking on study of the area, both in the West and in China. This catalogue is an important stepping-off point for such new research, which will over the next 50 years transform our understanding of these remote but vital parts of the world.

Central Asia is in itself a bridge between the Far East and the Middle East. Scholarly work on the area inevitably involves many working in different disciplines cooperating on a common project. Let us hope that this fine catalogue is only a first step.

Jessica Rawson is warden, Merton College, Oxford.

Serinde, Terre De Bouddha: Dix Siecles d'Art sur la Route de la Soie

Editor - Jacques Gies and Monique Cohen
ISBN - 2 7118 3068 3
Publisher - Reunion des Musees Nationaux
Price - £58.00
Pages - 432

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