WASHINGTON—Born amid the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, the daughter of a Kuomintang army captain, California-based artist Hung Liu recalls that the first pictures she drew as a five-year-old bore titles like “Long Live Chairman Mao.”
“I used to paint political rallies, portraits of Chairman Mao, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao.’ Also things like children skipping, me on the railway bridge outside Changchun, and so on,” Liu said in a recent interview with RFA’s Mandarin service.
“The world as seen through the eyes of a child. That’s my first reliable memory,” said Liu, who was born in the northeastern city of Changchun just in time to have her education cut short by Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
But even at that early age, Liu—now a celebrated painter and full-time history of art professor at Mills College, in Oakland, California—said her family noticed an unusual level of attention to character and expression in her child’s-eye view of the people around her.
Faces and their expressions were to become an integral part of Liu’s later work, which she described to RFA reporter Han Qing as drawing on twin sources of collective history and personal memory.
The important thing about being a painter is that you've got to find yourself.
“The important thing about being a painter is that you’ve got to find yourself,” Liu said. “In Mao’s China, a painter was a revolutionary cultural worker, to fit into the revolutionary machine according to what it needs you to do.”
“In my work, my experience as a Chinese immigrant to the United States is quite important, and also I discovered some very important historical photographs, both in the U.S. and in China. We were never allowed to see such photographs when I was in China,” she said.
Liu discovered the photos of turn-of-the-century prostitutes in China during her first trip back to her homeland in 1991, the year she received her second National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship and became a U.S. citizen. She has continued to draw on them for inspiration since.
Among Liu’s best-known works in the United States is a painting titled Strange Fruit , after the song by Billie Holliday. “It is a song full of sorrow and tragedy,” Liu told RFA reporter Han Qing.
“All the time I was working on the portrayal of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery as comfort women for the Japanese military, I was listening to this song,” said Liu, who first arrived in the United States in October 1984.
“These women all had different facial expressions, different personalities and were of different ages, yet they had all ended up as comfort women. A whole story was visible in each woman’s face,” she explained.
A whole story was visible in each woman's face.
Another very different woman’s face was to gain the attention of the Smithsonian Institution when interpreted by Liu—that of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908).
“I painted a portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I left the face rather flat because I didn’t find it very interesting, but put a lot of detail into her surroundings, like the peacock in the background, the robe she was wearing. And I painted in a birdcage, an old-fashioned Chinese birdcage, too,” Liu said.
“This painting was added to the Smithsonian Institution’s art collection. They told me that an American artist had painted Cixi’s portrait more than 100 years ago, and it was very interesting to compare the two.”
Liu found it fascinating to compare her painting with the work of Katherine A. Carl, undertaken a century earlier for the St. Louis Exposition.
“Ironically, even though I’m Chinese, I had painted the portrait of Cixi that I wanted to paint, whereas this woman had been commissioned by Cixi to paint her portrait and was totally restricted by her. She had to paint an idealized version with no facial blemishes...so the overall effect is rather false. So the museum now has both of our paintings, painted a century apart,” she said.
Another key work of Liu’s—the three-part “Unofficial Portraits”—was snapped up by the Library of Congress. It portrays three women: Maiden, Bride, and Grandmother, which can be seen either as the same woman at different stages of her life, or as three distinct stages in the life of a woman.
“The young girl is very pure and innocent and pretty, but when you get to the bride, she’s looking a little more serious, because she doesn’t know what it’s going to be like, so this is a new stage that she’s embarking on in her life,” Liu said.
I have accomplished enough for two lifetimes, and I'm still going.
“This is the point at which a woman becomes someone’s wife, someone’s daughter-in-law, and later a mother, so it’s an important transition.”
The third painting, “Martyr,” is of an older woman who carries her cares more lightly than before, Liu said.
“Or you can say it’s someone who is capable of sacrificing her life. So the third portrait is of such a woman... whose face is much older. While it looks a little dry and bitter, it is also very sculpted...the face of someone who has been through hard times, but who is still quite strong and not likely to bow to her fate,” she said.
“Having come to this stage of life after going through hard times, she is ready to sacrifice her life, which is especially true when she is a mother and grandmother—she has nothing to fear any more,” said Liu, half-laughing at the thought of greater freedom resulting from ageing.
Looking back on her own frenetically busy and productive life, Liu marvels at how far she has come from the young student whose college graduation was curtailed by political mayhem, and who later became a television art teacher and icon of the Deng Xiaoping era.
“When I got to the United States I had already lived half my lifetime in China. I didn’t really think about this; I just got on with my studies and trying to make a success of my painting career. .. But I always felt I should be doing more, because of Cultural Revolution and so on,” she explained.
“Other people ask me how I can possibly have exhibitions on top of my job as a full-time professor...they can’t believe it. And I look back and think, yes, I did do all that, didn’t I? I have accomplished enough for two lifetimes, and I’m still going.”
Original reporting in Mandarin by Han Qing. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by the Mandarin Web team and Sarah Jackson-Han.