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Fraser, Sarah E. 1960(?)–

Fraser, Sarah E. 1960(?)–

(Sarah Elizabeth Fraser)


Born c. 1960; daughter of a high school teacher and a newspaper printer. Education: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1982; University of California at Berkeley, M.A., 1989, Ph.D., 1996; Kobe University, Japan, matriculated doctoral student, 1990-91.


Office—Northwestern University, Department of Art History, Kresge Hall, Rm. 3-400, 1880 Campus Dr., Evanston, IL 60208-2208. E-mail—[email protected]


Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, department of art history, associate professor, 1996—, chair, 2004-07; École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, France, directrice d'études, 1999-2000; Dunhuang Project Director, northwestern China, 1999-2004. Served as visiting professor at Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Germany; speaks frequently at academic conferences around the world; previously worked for Asia Society, Houston, TX.


Chicago Consortium for Art History (vice chair, 2005—).


Fulbright-Hays grant, 2007-08, Getty Research Institute, Getty Scholar, in-residence fellowship, Los Angeles, CA, 2007-08; awarded numerous academic and research grants, including the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship.


(Editor) Merit, Opulence and the Buddhist Network of Wealth: Essays on Buddhist Material Culture, Shanghai shu hua chu ban she (Shanghai, China), 2003.

Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2004.

Contributor to various journals, including Journal of Asian History, Journal of Asian Studies, Canadian Journal of History, and Choice.


Sarah E. Fraser graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1982, with her undergraduate degree in art history and a minor in Chinese language and literature. She had no previous exposure to the Chinese language or the nation's art or literature before she arrived at college. She took Chinese quite by chance, after discovering that the Spanish course was using the same book that she had studied from in high school. Determined to try something new, Fraser scoured the course catalog and narrowed her language options to Swahili, Greek, and Chinese. Chinese seemed more intensive and involved, and Fraser was drawn to the idea of learning a language that would require long-term dedication to master. A junior year spent in Taiwan solidified Fraser's interest in the Asian culture, giving her her first up-close exposure to Chinese art, and thereby further defining her major.

From there Fraser continued her education at the University of California at Berkeley, earning both her master's degree and her doctorate in art history with a concentration on the art of China. Over the course of her academic career, she also studied Chinese at Middlebury College's summer language program, and at Tung-hai University in Taiwan. She also initially began her doctoral work at Kobe University in Japan, where she was matriculated as a student of Chinese art history. Fraser went on to teach at a number of institutions of higher learning, including Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Heidelberg, Germany. She went on to become an associate professor in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1996, hired on for their first tenure-track position in the history of Asian art. The position required her to build up the department's limited resources considerably in order that she might feel it was meeting the needs of her students. She also served as department chair from 2004 to 2007. She has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships to extend her education and delve more deeply into her research, including a Fulbright-Hays grant for the 2007-08 academic year, and an in-residence fellowship to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles for 2007 and 2008. Fraser's primary areas of research and academic interest include Chinese painting, with a particular focus on Buddhist art of the medieval period, and the development of the Chinese national identity through art, particularly the archeological and ethnographic projects so prevalent during the early twentieth century, from 1912 to 1949, an era known as the Republican period. In addition to her academic endeavors, Fraser is a regular contributor to various academic journals, including Journal of Asian History, Journal of Asian Studies, Canadian Journal of History, and Choice. She also speaks regularly at conferences around the world, and is the vice chair of the Chicago Consortium for Art History. Fraser is the author of Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960, and served as editor for Merit, Opulence and the Buddhist Network of Wealth: Essays on Buddhist Material Culture.

Performing the Visual delves into the mural art that was discovered in Gansu Province, China, at the Buddhist site of Dunhuang. The art itself dates back as far as the ninth and tenth centuries, and consists of the work of local artisans and painters who decorated the grottos there with illustrious murals. The artistic endeavors were discovered once more in the early 1900s, when explorers Paul Pelliot and Aurel Stein found what is now referred to as Cave 17, an area once used as a memorial chapel. Numerous sketches and renderings were made of the findings, and Fraser now seeks to determine what the artists' processes were to create the murals, using as the basis for her research sixty-five of the sketches created from the originals. Illustrations are included, offering readers an up-close glimpse of the source material from which Fraser works. The art was created in workshops, and so part of Fraser's intention is to determine how the workshops were formed and what the decision-making process was after they had been organized. She includes such speculations as how patrons functioned and what priority was placed upon the art work they commissioned specifically. Fraser then goes on to look at form and mediums and to observe upon the evolution of the artistic styles. Much of the work is a visual response to stories that were traditionally told orally. Fraser proposes that the styles and craftsmanship serve as a precursor to much later works in ink that would not appear until approximately the year 960 to as late as 1279. Tracy Miller, in a review for the Canadian Journal of History, remarked that "Fraser is at her best when carefully matching schematic ink sketches with individual elements of heavily-colored murals and portable paintings to show the manner in which the art of Dunhuang in the tenth century took shape." Angela F. Howard, reviewing the book for the Art Bulletin, commented that "Fraser has brought to our attention evidence that has been neglected and that is worth analyzing with the thoroughness she has applied. Just as important is her effort to understand the role of preliminary drawings or sketches beyond that of auxiliary tools at the service of a collective body. This is a rigorously researched book, albeit making use of selective material." Howard did note some questions, however, remarking that "if the sketches are only fragments of fixed compositions, it is legitimate to ask who originally determined the latter. The author gives place of honor to the sketch but remains silent about who supplied the composition as a whole. Was the workshop responsible?" In her research, Fraser embraces the use of new technologies, or the repurposing of older technologies, in order to reap the best possible rewards. In an article for Northwestern Online, Elizabeth Canning Blackwell observed that "one constant underlying all of Fraser's work is the belief that new technology shouldn't be feared—it should be embraced. She's bringing art history into the 21st century, and other academic disciplines can learn from her example."



Art Bulletin, June, 2006, Angela F. Howard, review of Performing the Visual: The Practice of Buddhist Wall Painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960, p. 389.

Canadian Journal of History, April, 2005, Tracy Miller, review of Performing the Visual, p. 156.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, September, 2004, J.O. Caswell, review of Performing the Visual, p. 89.

Journal of Asian History, spring, 2006, Johan Elverskog, review of Performing the Visual.

Journal of Asian Studies, November, 2004, Karil J. Kucera, review of Performing the Visual, p. 1074.


Northwestern Online, (April 17, 2008), Elizabeth Canning Blackwell, "Art for All."

Northwestern University Art History Department Web site, (April 17, 2008), faculty profile.

Northwestern University News Center Web site, (April 24, 2007), "Sarah Fraser Awarded Getty Institute Fellowship."

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