Hung Liu – Da Fan Che
Dimensions: 82 x 82″
Medium: mixed media on panel
(C) Hung Liu Estate/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
The title “Da Fan Che” refers to the specific headpiece the woman is wearing in the painting. It translates literally as “tip-over cart” headdress, according to Hung Liu. She describes it as a headdress so ornamental and laden with pearls and flowers that it could literally tip over as the strands of pearls move. She loves the detail in the headdress, and she was enamored with the process of drawing it.
The woman in the painting is a traveling entertainer. Hung found this image in an antique photograph, and as you know, photographs are very dear to Hung Liu because all of her own family photographs were destroyed. Hung’s father had been imprisoned in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. Hung’s mother feared it was too dangerous for Hung to be associated with her father via family photographs, so she destroyed them all. Hung had to imagine what her early childhood with her family in tact had been like. She chose to create beautiful images in her mind, and continued to create beautiful imaginary images of what her father’s life would be; perhaps thinking it somehow changed the reality of the situation in the labor camp. She felt in the artful space of her mental images, she could create a more beautiful reality for people who were facing difficult lives.
This practice of beautifying individual history is precisely what Hung Liu is most known for in her artwork. Not only is this practice a glorious way to honor and improve humanity; it is also unique to Hung Liu. Her training as a Social Realist painter and muralist at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing certainly gave her the artistic skills to glorify her subjects, such as workers, soldiers, and Mao. That training was propagandistic in its aim. What is so inspiring about Hung Liu’s work, to collectors and art historians alike, is the manner in which she adapted her Social Realist artistic tools for a more humanistic end. In Da Fan Che, Hung transforms the entertainer into an iconic, majestic, presence.
Hung says her fascination with the woman in Da Fan Che resides in the purity of the image. The woman’s face is pensive, beautiful, and strong. Though her life as a traveling entertainer would have certainly been a difficult one, she manages to maintain a peaceful expression. In her effort to give all the beauty and joy she can to the memory of this woman, she chooses to place her on a base of gold leaf. Since Hung Liu received Russian art training at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, she was aware of the artistic philosophy behind Russian icon painting. In Russian icon painting, the artist begins with a layer of the most base, earthly material, which is clay. In icon painting, the artist moistens the red clay with his/her breath, and then uses it for the first layer of color on the panel. An icon painter then adds more and more precious materials to the painting, to enhance the majesty of its subject.
In Da Fan Che, you can see that Hung allows some red from the lower-most part of the painting, to show through the layers of gold leaf, paint, resin, and all the ornate and beautiful imagery this painting includes. This is a reminder of the most basic human trials not only the woman in this painting, but that we all, face. The gold leaf reminds us of the sanctity of the individual woman in this painting, and also of the human spirit in general. The woman is wearing a white garment, to represent the purity of her soul. The light color of the flowers and the pearls in the headdress are also meant to represent her purity. Hung says she emphasizes the color white in this work, to illustrate the cleansing power of beauty.
The drips in the painting are a significant part of Hung Liu’s iconography. Hung has been quoted as saying, “Every day is Memorial Day, and every day is Thanksgiving.” She views the drips of paint as a sort of veil of memory that she adds to her paintings to remind the viewer that history can become blurred and obscured if not actively remembered. Likewise, Hung includes the circle in most of her paintings. For her, the circle has several meanings. It has the universal meaning of endlessness, but it also has personal meanings for Hung Liu. In art school, the instructor would circle favorite parts of the student’s artwork. Hung uses the circle not to identify particular parts of a painting; rather as a sort of stamp of approval of her work. The circle is also the shape of the period at the end of a Chinese sentence in printed books. Thus, it carries the meaning of completion of a work of art for Hung Liu.
Tonya Turner Carroll
April 20, 2017