Nameless but Not Forgotten: Hung Liu’s Portraits

Who defines history? The established historical cannon focuses more on world leaders, and less on the figures who toil in fields, fight in wars, and help drive important social and political movements. Hung Liu In Print, NMWA’s newest exhibition, features works by Chinese artist Hung Liu (b. 1948) that pay homage to the forgotten individuals who influence history.

Hung Liu In Print at NMWA

Liu is widely considered one of the most important contemporary Chinese artists working in the United States. Inspired by old Chinese photographs of unnamed individuals, Liu imbues her subjects with an air of both mystery and dignity. Her subjects often include farmers, prostitutes, mothers, and refugees. Liu says, “We need to remember where we come from; our history is with us and we carry it everywhere. My subjects in the prints are anonymous people—the ones who fight in the wars and provide food for us. They are not remembered for ‘making history’ as world leaders are, but to me they are the true makers of history.”

Hung Liu, Shui-Water, 2012; Color aquatint etching with gold leaf, 47 x 36 in.; NMWA, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Lee Stalsworth; © Hung Liu

One of the works in the exhibition, Shui-Water (2012), portrays a young woman kneeling with her hands resting firmly in her lap. The subtly rendered landscape and the delicately outlined flowers on her clothing reference traditional Chinese painting. Like many of Liu’s subjects, the woman depicted confidently meets the viewer’s gaze. Liu’s subject, though anonymous, exudes power and dignity.

Liu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and witnessed mass famine during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, an economic and social movement that devastated China’s economy. Liu labored in rice and wheat fields in the countryside for four years. Although she studied painting during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the Maoist regime required that she painted in a realistic style that did not allow for much personal expression. After being denied a passport by the Chinese government for three years, she immigrated to the United States in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego to continue studying art. Free from the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution, she developed her own artistic style.

Liu’s distinctive personal style combines naturalism with abstraction. While her figures are rendered with realistic detail, they are often situated in imaginative settings. Her characteristic drip marks are achieved by using a variety of printmaking techniques. For some prints, the dripping effect is created through irregular incisions cut into the wood. For others, she allows acid to drip directly onto the etching plate. Liu simultaneously preserves and dissolves the figures in the images. While the drip marks allude to the fading of old photographs and memories, the vivid colors illuminate her subjects, giving them a voice despite their anonymity.

Visit Hung Liu In Print in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery through July 8, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the spring 2018 publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Hung Liu: Restoring Memory

Born in 1948, a year before the Chinese Communist party came to power, Hung Liu grew up in an environment that discouraged apolitical personal expression. Although she received training in socialist realism, Liu delighted in painting landscapes and drawing portraits based on photos, both unsanctioned forms of expression under the Maoist regime. It was only when Liu immigrated to America that she began to experiment with art’s potential beyond the realm of realistic representation.

Hung Liu, Shan-Mountain, 2012; Color aquatint etching with gold leaf, 47 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; © Hung Liu; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Liu’s best-known works are paintings based on historical photographs. Re-creating the images in an enlarged format, she transforms humble documents into large, vivid portraits. Perhaps in rebellion against her training, Liu rejects the rigid realism of Chinese art of the post-Mao era. Instead, she embraces traditional conventions of Chinese painting that value energetic, expressive line work. She uses a restorative process in her work, layering bright colors over the black-and-white original images as well as decorative textures and whimsical forms from classical paintings. She often drips linseed oil over the canvas to create a hazy veil that hints at the muddled refractions of history and memory. By focusing on her subjects, Liu dignifies and humanizes these nameless faces of history. In lieu of capturing their precise historical context, she enhances the mysterious aura lent to them by the passage of time.

Liu imbues unlikely subjects with an awesome presence, as seen in her works on view at NMWA. On a 1991 trip to China, Liu discovered a collection of old photographs depicting unnamed prostitutes. In Shan-Mountain (2012) and Shui-Water (2012) she extracts these women from their source photos and presents them, magnified in scope, in dramatic portraits. Her focus on restoring their integrity as people over restoring the images as historical artifacts indicates a deep engagement with the humanity of her subjects. Once again, her vivid palette not only brings them to life, but endows the women with an air of nobility that suggests they might be royal concubines, or even empresses.

Hung Liu, Shui-Water, 2012; Color aquatint etching with gold leaf, 47 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; © Hung Liu; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

The names of the paintings themselves allude to the Chinese name for landscape paintings (shan shui hua, literally “mountain river paintings”) where towering mountains and sweeping rivers dwarf the occupants of the land. Although she imitates the aesthetics of landscape painting, Liu ultimately subverts their focus. Rather than emphasizing nature’s grandeur, she asserts the dignity of these individuals. By blending Western portraiture with Chinese landscape painting, Liu casts her subjects as monumental figures that stand independent of time or place. History may pick and choose who to remember, the paintings seem to say, but the integrity of the human spirit will thrive regardless.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.