Figure and Ground in Medieval Dunhuang Art

Yudong Wang, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, China


By focusing on the artist at work, this study attempts to conduct an archaeology with, not of, the mural art in medieval China and its aftermath. It investigates a more or less set working method for making murals in the six centuries of workshop practice in Dunhuang from the first half of the fifth century through the early eleventh century. This schematic procedure consists mainly of laying down the monochrome figurative drawing and superimposing colors to the monochrome design, whereby the colored “ground,” be it the ochre backdrop of the paintings of the Northern Dynasties or the “Blue and Green” landscape background of the later caves, is always added last. Behind this working order is the hierarchy and at times almost a paragone between the master draughtsman painting the figure of distinction and the lesser colorist who is in charge of adding the continuous polychrome ground, a “medieval” workshop phenomenon that is transformed into a connoisseur wisdom in the art criticism on mural art by the famed scholar Zhang Yanyuan (815-907). The method made its way into the later scroll painting when mural painting gradually lost its prestige in art production in China during Song times. Nevertheless, the loss is forever in post-Song pictorial art of the somatic, kinesthetic, and cooperative that were once the quintessential aspects of this manner of picture making and that which made such medieval mural art as that in Dunhuang truly splendid.