Painting of the Day

13 Feb



Visage II. by Hung Liu (born 1948). Oil on canvas, 2004. Currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Notes from

Born and raised in China, Hung Liu witnessed her father’s imprisonment by the Communists, along with the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. She came to the U.S. in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego where she earned an a MFA degree. On returning to China in 1990 she discovered a trove of photographs of young Chinese prostitutes. Reflecting on what struck her about the images, she has said, “Westerners brought cameras to China…the Chinese male photographers internalized this Western male gaze, and turned their cameras on their own women.” These photographs became source material for a series of large portraits such as “Visage II.” Liu surrounded the face with traditional Chinese blossoms, ghostly branches and rivulets of paint, simultaneously revealing and concealing the woman. Her method coupled with the haunting image from China’s past, suggests cultural memory and the way it is retold by those reflecting on it from a distance.

Personal statement from the artist’s website,

I have been painting in America since 1984, but Chinese history has always been the essence of my work. I grew up singing The Internationale.

In my middle school English class, our teacher gave us the English version of the lyrics. We once truly believed in Communism, in a socialist utopian dream, and in heroism. I have since replaced those beliefs with a kind of modern humanism, but some fundamental values and ideology from my thirty-six years in China stay with me. I was never interested in being a victim struggling in an authoritarian society. I admired heroes and wanted to be a tough solider.

Even today, when I’m wounded, I’d rather lick the blood and get back to work – like the women soldiers in “Daughters of China,” the 1949 propaganda film that serves as the basis for my most recent paintings. Usually I paint from historical photographs of China, but in this case the film offered me a sequence of panoramic stills, each frame filled with the heroic and desperate struggles of eight female soldiers who, in 1938, sacrificed their lives to save the retreating Chinese army. I saw this film as a child in China, and it shaped my 

expectations of women as protagonists in the emerging socialist utopia.

Of course, utopia never arrived, but a kind of hard won feminism stayed with me the rest of my life, and served me well in America. History is not a static image or a frozen story. It is not a noun. Even if its images and stories are very old, it is always flowing forward. History is a verb. The new paintings are my way of painting life back into my memories of a propaganda film that, over time, has become a document of the revolutionary sincerity that permeated my childhood. Even the actors in the film believed in their roles. When they walked into the river, carrying their dead and wounded, they were going home.

My comments:

This was another painting that was in the PAFA exhibition I saw on Sunday. It struck me in a very nonintellectual way for its sheer beauty as an image. The face of the girl seems more beautiful in person than it does in a computer image. The paint that the artist let drip down the canvas is also an incredibly striking effect that I haven’t quite seen exactly in other artist’s works and which I think really fits perfectly with what this artist is trying to accomplish. Thinking about this from an artist’s perspective, it would have actually been really difficult to get the paint to drip down the canvas in that perfectly straight line all across the canvas without any drip lines interfering with each other the way the artist has here. It’s also interesting to think about why should decided to make the lines so perfectly straight instead of a little messy or random.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. Karen February 13, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    Loved this painting.

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