Hung Liu at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (2018)National Museum of Women in the Arts
Hung Liu (1948–2021)
Painter and printmaker Hung Liu explored the complex and intertwined nature of personal, familial, communal, and national histories through layers of textures, colors, and drip marks.
Installation shot of Hung Liu In Print exhibition (2018)National Museum of Women in the Arts
As seen in the 2018 National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibition, Hung Liu in Print, her work frequently delves into the emotional spectrum of women’s lives.
Hung Liu at Tamarind Institute (2003)National Museum of Women in the Arts
Through her artwork, Liu examines women's joys and hardships, their vulnerability and tenacity, and their relationships with one another. Once victims of anonymity, these figures reemerge in her works as dignified symbols of strength and perseverance.
Women Working: Loom (1999) by Hung LiuNational Museum of Women in the Arts
Liu came of age during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, working alongside laborers in the countryside while training as a painter. After moving to the United States in 1984, she continued her artistic education at the University of California, San Diego.
Upon returning to China during her travels in the 1990s, she discovered what became the foundation for her art: photographs of 19th-century courtesans. Liu would go on to create portraits from historical images of prostitutes, laborers, and migrants, blending in symbolic imagery from traditional Chinese visual culture.
"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 the rest of us. They are not remembered for ‘making history’ as world leaders are, but to me, they are the true makers of history."
Sisters in Arms I (state II) (2003) by Hung LiuNational Museum of Women in the Arts
Liu's Sisters in Arms I (state II) and Sisters in Arms II (state II), prints created in 2003, can be viewed as the evolution of three women as they move through life. In this print, the figures are embracing in the comforts of innocent youth.
Sisters in Arms II (state II) (2003) by Hung LiuNational Museum of Women in the Arts
While in Sisters in Arms II (state II), Liu depicted the women still joined in sisterhood but worn with age and hardships.
For this series, Liu strayed from her usual colorful palette.
Instead, she explored gradations of darks and lights in her use of lithography.
Lithography is a printmaking medium known for its ability to capture very fine details.
Sisters (2000) by Hung LiuNational Museum of Women in the Arts
Assistant Curator Orin Zahra on Hung Liu's Printmaking
While best known for her highly expressive paintings, Liu also experimented with achieving similar richly layered compositions in printmaking.
To create her prints, Liu often focused on a detail from one of her previous paintings, embellishing it with additional elements and transforming it into a unique work of art.
Her prints, such as Sisters (2000), reveal layers of meaning through physical layers that she builds through the printmaking process. She described this process as "poetry."
Liu had great empathy for the plights of the working class, especially women. This likely stems from her own experiences of toiling for several years as an agricultural laborer in communist China before relocating to the United States.
Mu Nu/Yellow River (1997) by Hung LiuNational Museum of Women in the Arts
Assistant Curator Orin Zahra on "Mu Nu/Yellow River"
In Mu Nu/Yellow River (1997), a mother and daughter walk over rocks in a stream, pulling a boat by a rope tied to their waists. Liu signified their unromanticized labor through drips of gray pigment that cover their bodies and pour from their faces, suggesting sweat, tears, dirt, and pain.
She imbued these anonymous subjects with an air of mystery, yet great dignity.
This print incorporates soft-ground etching, which resembles a soft pencil line. Liu also used spitbite, a technique that involves applying diluted acid to cut a design into a copper plate, producing a watercolor-like finish.
American Dream series
In her more recent images of the American Dust Bowl based on Dorothea Lange’s photographs from the 1930s, Liu also examined the effects of displacement and economic depression.
Breast Milk by Hung LiuNational Museum of Women in the Arts
While Liu's works make specific historical references, their true subject is the human condition and universal feelings of loss, suffering, compassion, and perseverance, as demonstrated in Breast Milk (2016).
Hung Liu explained, “I hope to wash my subjects of their ‘otherness’ and reveal them as dignified, even mythic figures on the grander scale of history painting."
In Her Words
"I want my work to be a comfort to people I’ve never known—and others like them—who lost their dignity because of political or economic reasons. People want to connect and be heard. I’m lucky to be an artist because I can speak for other people as well as for myself."
Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands
Get an inside look into Hung Liu's life with the National Portrait Gallery's companion online exhibition, Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands.
Studio photographs of Hung Liu are courtesy of Hung Liu.
Prints were featured in the 2018 exhibition Hung Liu in Print and are courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Learn more about Hung Liu through NMWA's website.