In Monumental Paintings, Hung Liu Transformed Forgotten Histories into Moving, Personal Epics

In Monumental Paintings, Hung Liu Transformed Forgotten Histories into Moving, Personal Epics

Hung Liu’s life story unfolded like the myths she loved as a child, tales of women propelled by circumstance out of their homes and into the fray of history. Hoping to escape the rising Communist forces as they took over China’s countryside, her family fled to Beijing, only to be exiled back to a remote area; later, she would move to the United States, living in various cities along the California coast, where she began studying and making art. By the time her name was well known, she had perfected her distinct type of painted portraiture, featuring people who had been left behind, both in China and beyond.

“The story of America as a destination for the homeless and hungry of the world is not only a myth,” Liu once said. “It is a story of desperation, of sadness, of uncertainty, of leaving your home. It is also a story of determination, and—more than anything—of hope.”

Using bright colors and her signature linseed oil, Liu painted from photographs to create large-scale portraits that radiate selfhood. She often allowed her paint to drip so that the canvas appears to be crying, thus yielding what she called “weeping realism,” a nod to her earliest art education in China in the Socialist Realist style.

“The through line of her work is her investment in humanity, her belief in an epic history we’re all a part of,” said Dorothy Moss, who organized Liu’s first career retrospective, now at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. “By changing the scale of an image, or adding texture, she believed she could give her subjects dignity.”

Liu died last month, just days before the opening of her retrospective, which runs through May 30, 2022. Assembling paintings and photographs from the past four decades, the exhibition illustrates how Liu was inspired by the people society had exploited, marginalized, and discarded—orphans, migrants, mothers, prostitutes—to tell the stories that define her practice. Below, a look at how Liu came to create her emotionally moving, historically fraught images .

Early life

Hung Liu was an infant in 1948, when her parents fled from Changchun, China, ahead of the encroaching Communist forces. But once the Communist victory was complete throughout China, the family to return to Changchun. Liu’s father, Xia Peng, was promptly sent to a labor camp for having served in the opposing Kuomintang army. Liu would not see him again for nearly 50 years.

Years later, Liu’s mother told her a story from that time, in which they passed by a child abandoned beside the river; the child’s mother had jumped into the river and drowned. The image of the woman willingly swallowed by the waters, her life culminating in a ripple, haunted Liu.

Beginning in 1949, Liu’s mother, Liu Zongguang, began taking the family on annual trips to a photographer’s studio. Later, this became a dangerous activity, as simply owning studio photographs was considered a criminal offense. When soldiers broke into homes, they burned anything that they considered evidence of anti-proletarian sentiment, including photo albums. Anticipating this, her mother burned in advance images of the artist’s father and grandfather, who was a scholar, though a small, treasured few survived.

“You couldn’t keep anything personal,” Liu later recalled, explaining the impact of historical photographs on her practice. “That is why I am so interested in old photographs. They are rare. It is not like today.”

Village Photograph 4 Paint Box, Hung Liu, 1970-1972.

Village Photograph 4 Paint Box, Hung Liu, 1970-1972.

From childhood, Liu was sensitive to the relationship between memory and image-making and created portraits of each visitor to her mother’s home. During her middle and high school years, she attended art clubs and the Beijing Children’s Palace of Culture. In 1961, when she was 13, Liu entered an elite girls’ boarding school, but her education came to a traumatic halt in the spring of 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began. Two years later, in 1968, Liu, now 20, was among 17 million urban youths resettled in rural villages for an agrarian re-education.

For four years she threshed rice and bound corn, living on meager rations and creating hasty, postcard-sized landscapes and portraits of the other villagers. With soft graphite lines, she inscribed honest depictions of the forms and personalities of her sitters, emphasizing their inattentive stares, thin bodies, and slumped shoulders, all of which were absent from the propaganda posters that circulated then. She produced around 500 of these paintings, most of which she burned or hid under her mattress.

In 1972, Liu was allowed to attend college in Beijing, where she studied until 1975. Following graduation, she attended graduate school at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Socialist Realism supplied the guiding principles at both schools, and there was very little room for deviation. Still, Liu found a way to retain a measure of personal expression by studying ancient cave drawings and Buddhist iconography. She often tucked two symbols of hope, a lotus flower and crane, into her paintings.

But Liu remained determined to leave China, and after a four-year legal process, attained permission to emigrate to the United States. She left behind her mother and young son, who would eventually join her in California.

A painting by Hung Liu done in the style of an identity document that reads 'Resident Alien' for a person named 'Cookie, Fortune.'

Hung Liu, Resident Alien, 1988.

A Second Education in California 

When she arrived in 1984, Liu didn’t know what to make of her new teachers and classmates at the University of California, San Diego, whose teachings and art reflected the apoliticism of American postwar art. Many returned the feeling, as they struggled to figure out how a practice informed by a strong political framework could be considered contemporary art.

A breakthrough came during a class with Allan Kaprow, the famed performance artist who had staged Happenings in New York in the 1960s. As she told it, Kaprow brought his students to a dumpster and instructed them to make something worthwhile of its contents. Liu stared without understanding, but soon grasped his point about the performative possibility of art, to incisive effect.

In 1988, the year before hundreds were killed and wounded at Tiananmen Square, Liu began two of her best-known works, Where Is Mao? and Resident Alien. In the former, she draws the dictator in widely broadcasted images: meeting Richard Nixon, swimming in the Yangtze river, commending a member of the Red Guard. But, in a twist, she has omitted the leader’s face from these paintings, and the paintings’ backgrounds  contain only the sparsest touchstones, like the Communist sickle or flags. Here Mao Zedong is quite literally effaced in what she described as an “anti-monument.”

In Resident Alien, Liu re-created her own green card as a painting, with a few ironic alterations: her name now reads “Fortune Cookie,” and she inverted the final two digits of her birth year—from 1948, to 1984—referencing both the year she settled in the United States and the title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. The painting, which was re-created on a monumental scale at the de Young museum in San Francisco earlier this year, speaks to the tension between her identity as a Chinese immigrant and her pursuit of American citizenship, conveying her feeling that the two country’s bureaucratic systems aren’t very dissimilar.

A self-portrait painting of Hung Liu, in which a canvas is shaped around the figure's body. She wears a gray shirt and blue pants and carries an orange rifle and pink utility belt around her chest and shoulders.

Hung Liu, Avant-Garde, 1993.

Personal History on the Grand Scale

Liu was a prolific painter, producing several large-scale pieces drawn from photographs in quick succession. She examined the history of portraiture as political propaganda and how art can be leveraged by totalitarian regimes to manipulate memory.  Two works, both created in 1993, speak to how she tried to make art that could elevate personal history on a grand scale: Avant-Garde, a self-portrait as a rifle-toting youth at the end of the Cultural Revolution, and Miss Y, a study of a young girl preening in a mirror. Around this time, Liu returned to China, where she found a cache of tattered, black-and-white historical photographs. Over the next decade she experimented with color and texture while translating the photographs into painting.

“When I tried to use colors to image and decode the old black-and-white photos,” Liu once said, it was “as if I could feel the subject’s heartbeat and pulse, I felt the connection and understanding with her/him/them.”

On her trip to China, Liu was finally able to track down her father, who was living on a labor farm for elderly inmates near Nanjing, where he had worked on and off since 1948. He stood stooped and wouldn’t look her in the eyes as they spoke, explaining later that prison had taught him to bury his feelings beyond reach.

Based on that experience, Liu created, Father’s Day, a standout painting that is based on a photo taken of the two in 1994. Photography, she once said, could free its subjects from unjust narratives, or confine their memory in perpetuity. Here, she lifts her father from his bonds, if only in spirit.

Hung Liu's painting which adds color to Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph of a migrant mother with her two children

Hung Liu, Migrant Mother: Mealtime, 2016.

Later in her career, women and children emerged as the primary focus for Liu. Strange Fruit: Comfort Women (2001) is a tribute to the tens of thousands of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the imperial Japanese army during World War II. In one of her most expansive series, “Mission Girls,” weary young Chinese orphans crowd the canvases. The background is rendered loosely, with visible paint strokes and thick drips of paint. (Works from the series were set to be exhibited at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2019, but after a protracted application process, a Chinese censorship board denied the request.)

Liu’s final body of work is based on Dorothea Lange’s photographs of mothers and their children taken during the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Migrant Mother: Mealtime (2016), is drawn from Lange’s famous portrait of a weary farmworker and her children, and Liu has translated it with a palette of muddy gray and brown flecked by bright streaks of color. The American photographer shared Liu’s boundless empathy for people who “had no name, no bio, no story left,” Liu said. “I feel they are kind of lost souls, spirit-ghosts. My painting is a memorial site for them.”

A major retrospective of her work is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.