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.