From the Forbidden City to UChicago, art historian searches for ’a human perspective’

As curator and scholar, Prof. Wu Hung is ’one of the most influential leaders in art history’

When Prof. Wu Hung lived in the Forbidden City as a young scholar in the 1970s, he felt the constant presence of history. The palatial compound was quiet and empty after visiting hours, and Wu could contemplate its ancient art and architecture.

In the evenings, Wu often spent time in the largest open space within the palaces. Surrounded by the ancient architecture, he could see the vast sky and watch the seasons unfold.

"It was like living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, only these palaces are even more immense and wonderful," said Wu, a longtime University of Chicago faculty member. "Art was my next-door neighbor. The Forbidden City’s enormous art collections made me want to pursue a career in art history. I sensed a strong continuity in its art and architecture to our time."

Wu has since become a leading expert on Chinese art history-curating groundbreaking exhibitions while writing for audiences around the globe. "He is always thinking about ways to cut across existing boundaries," said Assoc. Prof. Claudia Brittenham, a fellow art historian at UChicago. Assoc. Prof. Wei-Cheng Lin, a student-turned-colleague, described Wu as a pioneer in his field: "His work has so much impact on the world."

Wu’s academic path traces back to a turbulent period in Chinese history. He started but never finished his bachelor’s degree at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution and a shutdown of the country’s higher education institutions.

At the time, Communist Party leader Mao Zedong dismissed Chinese history, banned books and forced artists to adhere to a party line. Although Wu’s college studies were suspended, he could still study the Qing Dynasty art collections formerly owned by Chinese emperors in the palace art galleries of the Forbidden City. 

Once China relaxed its restrictions on education, Wu earned a master’s degree in 1980 from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As students began studying abroad, he longed to immerse himself in a subject not taught in China. After initially pursuing anthropology at Harvard University, Wu soon realized how important art history was to him; in 1987, he completed an interdisciplinary doctoral program of anthropology and art history. He remained at Harvard for another seven years, earning tenure as an associate professor of humanities and fine arts.

In 1994, the University of Chicago convinced Wu to make another move, offering him the opportunity to build a new Asian art program. He became the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Art History and is now also director of the Center for the Art of East Asia and an adjunct curator at the Smart Museum of Art at UChicago.

"Even today I characterize my study of art history from a human perspective, not from an object viewpoint," Wu said, who will share some of his expertise on Oct. 16 as keynote speaker for Humanities Day , an annual event celebrating the leading research from the University of Chicago Division of the Humanities.

Putting scholarship in context

For all of Wu’s accolades, Lin said his mentor’s scholarship had long been underappreciated.  "His scholarly and curatorial work has immensely shifted the field of Chinese art history," said Lin, PhD’06. "We had to catch up, however, to understand the impact of his work as one of the most influential leaders in art history."

Many scholars of Chinese art history have adopted Wu’s style of scholarship-the materials that interest him and his philological methods. "His students know his vision and the scholarship he uses to build it," Lin said.

Today Wu has a wide readership in his native country, with two-thirds of his work from the 1980s and 1990s being translated into Chinese. Since the early 2000s, he has published some books and articles directly in Chinese while his work in English has been continuously translated.

As Wu has developed Chinese art history into a powerful force worldwide, the number of museums in China has also risen, growing from 349 to more than 5,100 over the past three decades. China’s art market is ranked No. 2 behind the United States and accounts for a fifth of the world’s sales.

This past January, Wu received two prizes for his book First Class: Teaching Chinese Art History at Harvard University and University of Chicago published last year in Chinese. Collaborating with students, Wu used 24 of his lectures from his opening classes-including 18 written and delivered at UChicago-to illustrate how he structures the study of Chinese art history. China Publishing & Media Journal named First Class as one of the most influential books on art education, and a panel at the Fifteenth Annual Awards of Chinese Book Publishers recognized it as one of the two best books on art.

"One of Wu’s long-term aspirations is to develop art history in China," Brittenham said. "His first class lectures frame the aspirations for the class and sell students on the importance of what he is doing-a programmatic agenda for the study of Chinese art."

Part of his success, Brittenham added, stems from his ability to take "a much longer view of art history, with the study of so many different materials. For example, Wu has a tremendous knowledge of Chinese literature and integrates it with the materiality of objects. He has shown that powerful texts and the art are not always in accord."

Wu has taken this approach at the Mogao Caves, which he first visited in the 1960s and has returned to many times since. Located in Dunhuang, China, the caves contain pristine Buddhist artwork, dating back 1,000 years. "You can see art in its original context, not in a museum," Wu said. "My scholarship on art concerns its context; it’s not about isolated works."

In a forthcoming book about the art in the Mogao Caves, Wu notes that the paintings can be hard to see, located in places in which visitors cannot view the entire compositions. Yet modern studies are based on the photographs and texts, which don’t account for the paintings’ physical condition and sizes. Wu contends that the paintings need to be studied in situ because the ancient artists conceived of them as murals, without explanatory texts and photographs.

’The art always comes first’

By taking a global perspective, Wu sees Chinese art history as a foundational part of an interconnected study of art history. Even as he has advanced Chinese art history through influential books-including Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (1995), Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square: The Creation of Political Space (2005), and A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012) --he launched a second career as a curator.

"For Wu Hung, the art always comes first," said Orianna Cacchione, curator of global art at the Smart Museum. "His depth of experience in curating contemporary Chinese art is unmatched in the U.S. Wu Hung can ask simple questions about how to think about Chinese art reframing it to show it’s much more complex than expected."

Wu’s openness to different perspectives is one of the reasons behind his success, according to Lin: "Wu is a great scholar who never coasts on his laurels and is hard-working and disciplined."

In 2004, Wu co-organized the exhibition "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China" with Christopher Phillips, which was shown at seven U.S. museums, including the Smart Museum. Richard Vine of Art in America called it one of the 12 art and culture exhibitions that defined the 2000s "a timely triumph of artistic globalism, concurrent with a briefly roaring market for Chinese contemporary art abroad."

Wu’s most recent exhibition was even more laborious. For six years, Wu curated " The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China " exhibition, focusing on contemporary artists who use nontraditional materials such as human hair, cigarettes and plastics to express their visions.

"Artists have much greater freedom to express their ideas," Wu said. "This contributes to the larger art history discussion about contemporary Chinese art, which can be applied to artistic traditions in Italy, Japan, Germany and the U.S."

"The Allure of Matter" was viewed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019 and in Chicago at the Smart Museum and Wrightwood 659 in early 2020 . The COVID-19 pandemic cut short its run in Chicago and canceled scheduled exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

"I was heartbroken when the exhibition had to be cut short," Wu said. "We did publish a beautiful catalog where the information about the artists and their art is preserved, and scholars are using it in their research and teaching. However, for an exhibition to be most successful, it needs an audience to see it in person."

Wu has just finished two new books. One, based on his 2019 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, examines the relationship between artistic practice and discourse throughout the history of Chinese art. The other traces the global history of the full-length mirror and the various kinds of images inspired by this object. Both books will come out in 2022.

These books and his other ongoing writing projects rethink the experience of art by recontextualizing it through global art trends rather than by countries and time periods. Wu wants art historians and the public to view art through a broader and integral frame of space and time, not place.

"There are multiple ways to tell the story of art," he said.

Register to attend Humanities Day 2021, and see the full schedule of virtual and in person events on Oct. 16.

Wu Hung will deliver the keynote address from 11 a.m. to noon CT. Titled "In the Name of Art-Destruction and Reconstruction," his address will reflect on the destruction of Buddhist sites in China during the early 20th century, and ask whether art historical scholarship is partially responsible for these tragedies.

Other presentations for the 41st annual Humanities Day include:

  • "Range and Race: Vittoria Tesi Tramontini as Singer and Curio" with Robert Kendrick
  • "The Pandemic Reshapes Current Issues through Language" with Shan Xiang, Xiaorong Wang, Yi-lu Kuo and Yujia Ye
  • "Times and Transformations: Reading, Writing, and Teaching in a Pandemic Era" with Rachel DeWoskin, Vu Tran and Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas