Hung Liu: Making History

Adapting motifs and symbols from Chinese visual and cultural traditions, as well as antique photographs of Chinese society by Western observers, Liu transformed documentary-style photography into painterly, personal reflections on canvas and paper.

Hung Liu (1948 to 2021)

Coming of age during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Hung Liu (1948 to 2021) was profoundly affected by the plights of the poor and oppressed. Photography played a critical role in the artist’s life and career, from candid shots that she took of villagers in the countryside to the 19th-century portraits of women that became source imagery for her works. She was even inspired by Dorothea Lange’s images of the American Dust Bowl. Liu’s own poetic imagery stirs a collective memory of her country while re-centering the narrative on the most vulnerable in society.

A black-and-white photograph of Hung Liu in her early twenties, wearing a collared shirt and short hair tied back. She sits in a wheat field and looks down at a stalk in her hands.
Photograph of Hung Liu, ca. 1970 to 72; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Portraits of Women

Liu’s art has always focused on the human condition, particularly that of women under male-dominated regimes. Her archives of source materials include photographic portraits of empresses, mistresses, laborers, and migrant women. Many of these photographs were hidden in the Beijing Film Studio during the Cultural Revolution. Liu took snapshots of the photographs to bring the images back to the United States, where she had moved in 1984 to continue her art training.

A black-and-white image shows a group of Asian women in traditional Chinese attire. They are seated facing the camera, with their hands folded on their laps.
Unidentified photographer, Group of women, ca. 1900; Artist’s photograph of archival image, Collection of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For many of her portrayals of sex workers and courtesans, Liu worked from photographs of Chinese women posed in Western costumes and on stage sets that were dated around 1900. She discovered these photographs on a return visit to China in the 1990s. The attire, props, and backdrops indicate that the archival photographs were intended for Western and upper-class Chinese clientele, while Japanese captions on some of the photographs suggest that they were also meant for Japanese tourists in China.

Anonymous Faces

In this black-and-white photo, a young woman of Asian descent sits on a balustrade surrounded by potted plants. Her hands are folded on her lap, and she wears light clothing and a headpiece.
Unidentified photographer, Woman seated on prop balustrade (inspiration for Shui-Water), ca. 1900; Artist’s photograph of archival image, Collection of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A light-skinned Chinese woman is seated in front of a pale pink background. She wears a cream colored traditional dress decorated with flowers.
Hung Liu, Shui-Water, 2012; Color aquatint etching with gold leaf on paper, 47 x 36 in.; 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; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Shui Water is adapted from a historical photograph of a woman sitting on a railing and surrounded by flowerpots. Liu isolates the figure, placing her in front of a backdrop that evokes Chinese landscape paintings. Her body, layered under streaks of brown earth, may refer to the exploitation endured by working-class women.

Imperial Women

A square painting with layered, dripping textures of a light-skinned Chinese woman with dark hair and red lips seen from the shoulders up. She gazes straightforward at the viewer and wears a traditional Chinese headdress. She is partially obscured by a branch of pink blossoms.
Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011; Woodblock print with acrylic ink, 32 1/4 x 29 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A black-and-white photograph shows a young Asian woman wearing traditional Chinese attire and an ornamented, tasseled headdress.
Portrait of Concubine Zhen (inspiration for Winter Blossom), published in the Palace Museum Journal (1960)

Liu captures the direct, unflinching gaze of the Imperial Consort Zhen Fei (1876 to 1900), even including her elaborate tasseled headdress. But in Liu’s interpretation, Zhen Fei, who died mysteriously and tragically, is encircled by plum blossoms, a sign of fortitude.

People of the Cultural Revolution

In 1968, Liu was one of ten million urban youths sent to re-education camps in the countryside during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. She toiled in rice and wheat fields in Dadu Lianghe, a village approximately 50 miles outside of Beijing. She bonded with the other villagers and photographed them using a friend’s Karl Zeiss camera, despite restrictions on the use of the medium by the Chinese government.

A black-and-white image shows a young Asian woman crouching in a rural setting, on the bank of a river where a rowboat rests on the water. She stares into the distance.
Photograph of Hung Liu, ca. 1970 to 72; Collection of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Corn Carrier

Liu’s highly expressive portraits reveal the suffering and perseverance of laborers. As this woman is burdened under the weight of the crops on her back, her face shows anguish and fatigue. Liu’s signature drip marks, which she calls “weeping realism,” further elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

In a painting whose surface is richly textured with drip marks, a young woman wears a loose, white button-up shirt, loose khaki pants, sneakers, and a backpack. Several large black-and-white birds stand or fly around her. On her back, a large cluster of thick brushstrokes resembles corn stalks.
Hung Liu, Corn Carrier, 1999; Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Patti and Jerry Sowalsky; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A Closer Look: Bird Imagery

Liu frequently includes birds in her works with various cultural connotations. Cranes were signs of good luck, serenity, and blessings while Mandarin ducks were considered symbols of love and devotion. Images of sparrows allude to Mao Zedong’s infamous 1958 Four Pests Campaign, which aimed to eradicate mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. One of the first actions of China’s Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao’s plan for national economic reconstruction, the campaign led to ecological disasters and mass starvation.

Hung Liu, Corn Carrier (detail), 1999; Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Patti and Jerry Sowalsky; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A Closer Look: Religious Symbols

Other religious motifs in Liu’s compositions include Bodhisattva figures, lotus blossoms, as well as the recurrent use of circles, which refers to the Zen Buddhist philosophy of wholeness, emptiness, and the cycles of life. Liu incorporates these symbols as a way to accompany, guide, and protect the men, women, and children in her works.

Hung Liu, Corn Carrier (detail), 1999; Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Patti and Jerry Sowalsky; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Women at Work

An etching of a Chinese woman working at a wooden loom. Three colorful birds sit in the foreground of the print in front of the loom. Above the loom hovers a dream-like figure of a Chinese person wearing a long yellow robe. The figure is riding on a mystical red bird.
Hung Liu, Women Working: Loom, 1999; Softground etching, spitbite aquatint with scraping and burnishing on paper, 31 1/2 x 41 3/4 in.; 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; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A black-and-white image shows a woman in profile weaving on a traditional wooden loom. She wears a head wrap, and her sleeves are rolled to her elbows.
William Saunders, No. 6–Weaving (inspiration for Women Working: Loom) from “China: occupational and tableaux scenes of peasants plus views,” ca. 1870; Albumen silver print, 8 1/4 × 10 3/4 in.; J. Paul Getty Museum

Liu examined photographs of 19th-century China by Scottish and English photographers John Thomson (1837 to 1921) and William Saunders (1832 to 1892), such as this one of a woman working on a loom. The artist was struck by the woman’s concentration on her task, refusing to return the gaze of the voyeur/photographer.

Symbols and Motifs

La Ran—Butterfly

Liu created a series of works that allude to La Ran, or Chinese batik, a textile dyeing method practiced in the Guizhou province of southwestern China. The woman seen in profile here has an elaborate coiffure, echoing the form of the butterfly that appears throughout the batik background.

A woman wearing an elaborate hairstyle and earrings is seen in profile against a cream background and outlines of butterflies. A decorative glass bottle and two miniature ceramic sculptures of male figures are attached to the surface of the print.
Hung Liu, La Ran—Butterfly, 2003; Color soft-ground, spit-bite aquatint, and aquatint etching with scrape and burnish and attached objects, 31 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the thirtieth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A Closer Look: Snuff Bottle

Liu affixed a snuff bottle to this mixed-media work. Snuff, or pulverized tobacco, was imported to China from the West in the 16th and 17th centuries. Elite members of the Qing dynasty would carry around decorated pocket-sized glass bottles, which continued to be valued collectors’ items over the following centuries.

A woman wearing an elaborate hairstyle and earrings is seen in profile against a cream background and outlines of butterflies. A decorative glass bottle and two miniature ceramic sculptures of male figures are attached to the surface of the print.
Hung Liu, La Ran—Butterfly (detail), 2003; Color soft-ground, spit-bite aquatint, and aquatint etching with scrape and burnish and attached objects, 31 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the thirtieth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A Closer Look: Mudmen

Liu includes two sculptures of mudmen, glazed figures of wise men and more rarely, women. Individually molded, they were often portrayed reading, fishing, or holding flutes or other objects of spiritual significance. The history of these figurines in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). By the 19th century, mudmen remained popular in the Chinese export market; Liu purchased these in the United States.

A woman wearing an elaborate hairstyle and earrings is seen in profile against a cream background and outlines of butterflies. A decorative glass bottle and two miniature ceramic sculptures of male figures are attached to the surface of the print.
Hung Liu, La Ran—Butterfly (detail), 2003; Color soft-ground, spit-bite aquatint, and aquatint etching with scrape and burnish and attached objects, 31 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the thirtieth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Winter with Cynical Fish

Winter with Cynical Fish is part of a series of four diptych paintings by Liu, each representing one of the four seasons. The artist painted leaves of white bamboo, a plant noted for its ability to withstand harsh winters, over the woman’s body. Because of its hollow stalks, which yield but are difficult to break, bamboo symbolizes strength, tolerance, and integrity. These attributes made bamboo a common motif for scholar-artists in Chinese painting.

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.
Hung Liu, Winter with Cynical Fish, 2014; Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Fred M. & Nancy Livingston Levin, The Shenson Foundation in memory of Ben & A. Jess Shenson; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Cynical Fish

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.
Hung Liu, Winter with Cynical Fish, 2014; Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Fred M. & Nancy Livingston Levin, The Shenson Foundation in memory of Ben & A. Jess Shenson; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A painting shows two fish swimming in opposite directions near abstract, rock-like formations. At the top are Chinese calligraphy and a red rectangular stamp. The images and letters are painted in black, and the paper’s surface is yellowed.
Bada Shanren, Fish and Rocks (detail), mid- to late 1600s; Handscroll with ink on paper, 11 1/2 x 61 15/16 in.; Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund

The fish imagery came directly from the paintings of the eminent Chinese artist Bada Shanren (born Zhu Da, ca. 1625 to 1705). Bada is known for his satirical images of birds and fish, which reflected moods or temperaments such as sadness, anger, or as Liu noted here, cynicism.

Scholar’s Rock

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.
Hung Liu, Winter with Cynical Fish, 2014; Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Fred M. & Nancy Livingston Levin, The Shenson Foundation in memory of Ben & A. Jess Shenson; © 2023 Hung Liu Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
An irregular-shaped, sandy-toned stone object stands on a rounded base made of dark wood. The stone is an evocative, abstract form with rough curves, concavities, holes, and pores.
Unknown artist, Scholar’s Rock, 19th century, Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911); Limestone with wood stand; Overall (with base) 24 3/8 x 16 1/4 x 11 1/4 in.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Richard Rosenblum Family, 2008

Liu includes an illustration of a scholar’s rock, a small, ornamental, naturally formed stone placed in imperial gardens and scholars’ studios for meditation or inspiration.

Special Thanks

This online resource was developed in collaboration with Dorothy Moss and the Hung Liu Estate.

Exhibition Sponsors

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