Urgent Museum Notice

Gallery Labels: Hung Liu

A square painting with layered, dripping textures of a Chinese woman with dark hair and a traditional dress. She gazes straightforward at the viewer. In front of her, a tree branch extends upward and a bird perches on the end of it. The background consists of two different shades of blue and on the left side of the canvas an open-mouthed fish points towards the woman.
Explore labels from the exhibition.

Hung Liu: Making History

Hung Liu (b. 1948, Changchun, China; d. 2021, Oakland, California) used her canvases and paper surfaces to honor the women and children she represented. Liu grew up during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, where she labored as a fieldworker and trained as a painter, before immigrating to California in 1984. She developed a distinctive approach, adapting figures from historical photographs and reimagining these antique depictions of laborers, refugees, and sex workers. With drip marks that veil and obscure her subjects, Liu evokes the grainy quality of vintage photographs, suggesting the erosion or layering of one’s memories. Yet her art is likewise an act of remembrance. 

Throughout her practice, Liu monumentalized downtrodden and forgotten individuals from the past as mythic figures on the grand scale of history painting. The artist said of her subjects, “I’d like to summon their ghost spirits, to make sure they are not forgotten. My painting them is to memorialize them.” 

Hung Liu: Making History is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The exhibition is generously supported by Stephanie Sale and the members of NMWA. 

For exhibition-related resources, including label transcripts, visit nmwa.org/making-history

Photography is encouraged. Share and tag us on social media: #NMWAnow @WomenInTheArts

Shan-Mountain, 2012 

Color aquatint etching with gold leaf on paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in memory of the artist and in honor of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts 

In addition to the photographs from which Liu drew her subjects, she also owned a significant collection of reproductions of traditional Chinese woodcuts, which inspired the imagery in the backgrounds of Shan-Mountain and Shui-Water. Liu began the prints by drawing the central figures, then layered various etching techniques that echo the free-form, painterly nature of her works on canvas. Touches of gold leaf-accented jewelry and buttons embellish her sitters’ appearances, elevating the status of these neglected female figures.

Shui-Water, 2012  

Color aquatint etching with gold leaf on paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in memory of the artist and in honor of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts 

To learn more about select works on view, visit nmwa.org/hung-liu

Winter Blossom, 2011 

Woodblock print with acrylic ink on paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the twenty-fifth anniversary of NMWA 

Liu depicts Zhen Fei, also known as the Pearl Concubine, who was the independent, politically active nineteenth-century consort of Guangxu, emperor of the Qing Dynasty. While Liu’s portrait is a tribute to this mysterious figure, the artist’s characteristic layers veil her face, suggesting that much of Zhen Fei’s life is still concealed from the world. Encircling her face are flowering plum blossoms, which bloom in the heart of winter and symbolize perseverance and fortitude.

Mu Nu/Yellow River, 1997 

Spitbite aquatint and soft-ground etching on paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the thirtieth anniversary of NMWA 

Women Working: Loom, 1999 

Soft-ground etching and spitbite aquatint with scraping and burnishing on paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in memory of the artist and in loving memory of his grandmother, Anna Kemper Albert

Liu based this image on a nineteenth-century black-and-white photograph by William Saunders. She inserted her own inventions and symbols: rich colors, bird and flower motifs from Song Dynasty paintings, and a floating goddess in the guise of a phoenix. As she described this woman performing labor-intensive work, “There was a lot of dignity in handling a machine.” Rather than overlooking the working class, Liu celebrated these individuals as historically significant figures. 

Corn Carrier, 1999 

Oil on canvas; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Patti and Jerry Sowalsky

Inspired by Dorothea Lange’s images of the American Dust Bowl from the 1930s, Liu explored the effects of displacement and economic depression of Chinese migrant workers. Here, a young peasant woman carries a bushel of corn on her back, nearly overtaken by its size and weight. The artist herself toiled in the wheat, rice, and corn fields during the Cultural Revolution and photographed fellow laborers. The work’s monumental scale, historically associated with portraits of nobility, now exalts these victims of historical anonymity. 

To learn more about Hung Liu’s depictions of people during the Cultural Revolution and in select works on view, visit nmwa.org/cultural-revolution

La Ran—Butterfly, 2003 

Color soft-ground etching, spitbite aquatint, and aquatint with scrape and burnish on paper with attached object; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the thirtieth anniversary of NMWA 

Winter with Cynical Fish, 2014 

Oil on canvas; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Fred M. & Nancy Livingston Levin, The Shenson Foundation in memory of Ben & A. Jess Shenson 

Liu adapts the sullen fish imagery from the paintings of the eminent Chinese artist and calligrapher Bada Shanren (born Zhu Da, ca. 1625–1705), whose satirical pictures of birds and fish reflected moods such as sadness, anger, or cynicism. In Winter, Liu includes an illustration of a scholar’s rock, a term for small, ornamental, naturally formed stones placed in imperial gardens and scholars’ studios for meditation or inspiration. By pairing Bada’s symbols of high art and culture with poor, working-class women, Liu places the latter among those in the highest social strata.  

To learn more about Liu’s symbols and motifs in select works on view, visit nmwa.org/symbols

Summer with Cynical Fish, 2014 

Oil on canvas; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist and Turner Carroll Gallery in honor of Nancy Livingston 

Summer with Cynical Fish and Winter with Cynical Fish are part of a series of four paintings that Liu created from 2012 to 2014, each representing one of the four seasons. Looking out at the viewer, the figure in Summer holds a handkerchief, a traditional sign of propriety and decorum for women. Washes of linseed oil streak down her canvas, a style that the artist dubbed “weeping realism,” instilling a sense of emotion and empathy for her subjects.