ESSAYS Mousse 34
Art with a Purpose: Notes on Hannah Ryggen’s Tapestries
by Maria Lind
The story of Hannah Ryggen is far from the classic tale of the contemporary artist born and trained in the big city, the fulcrum and hotbed of the edgiest scene. Instead, it is that of a leftist, pacifist woman, in love with nature, who lived on a farm far away from it all, on a Norwegian fjord, where she wove tapestries. These large works combine abstraction and figure, and not only address timely topics of the day—the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italians, for example—but also express dissent—regarding the execution of the communist Herrmann, or the war in Vietnam—or admiration for those who refuse to be swayed by questionable positions. Her work has crossed that fjord to reach major art events and institutions, as narrated by Maria Lind.
At one and the same time around the middle of the 1970s my two Stockholm-based grandmothers started to weave. As women who had always been knitting mittens for the family and crocheted doilies for the house, they had never learnt weaving. Weaving belonged to a tradition which came from the culture of farms rather than the urban working class. Now they took evening classes to learn a craft which simultaneously was both a nod to the then current green wave and a sign of their desire to have an ambitious outlet for creative impulses, without direct use and outside the family. Weaving also was safely within acceptable gender patterns.
Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) was a reference for my grandmothers. Her large-scale epic tapestries which pull international political events into personal stories had a strong appeal. A leftist and pacificist with a love of nature, Ryggen utilized the fact that weaving by necessity produces angular shapes in order to create an expressive language with flat areas juxtaposing modulated parts with human figures and animals. Abstraction meets figuration, just as smooth surfaces meet rya in this unique oeuvre. The fact that she was weaving at home, on a standing loom constructed by her husband, and using yarn dyed with local plants combined with considerable chemical knowledge of the effects of urine and sunshine, was also inspirational for my grannies. After all, Ryggen had shown no less than 28 of her works in a solo show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1962, the third exhibition on textiles since the museum had opened in 1958. The show was widely publicized and the work filtered far beyond the world of culture.
Ryggen’s titles speak openly of her interests. The single mother (1937), We and our animals (1934), The 1st of May Procession (1935), Ethiopia (1935), The Hitler Carpet (1936) and Lise Lotte Herrmann (1938). In various red and greenish hues, the latter shows the German student with communist sympathies who was beheaded after the police had taken her baby away from her. She is depicted while feeding the child, but also behind bars with the executioner hovering above her. The single mother is a monumental tapestry structured as a triptych, showing a woman with a sewing machine and a smiling baby next to her in the middle, and men symbolizing faithlessness and deceit on either side. The unusual motive was inspired by a local seamstress who supported herself and her four children with a sewing machine.
We and our animals tells the story of Ryggen and her family on a small and remote farm in the fjord of Trondheim in Norway. Using the narrative technique of “simultaneous succession” whereby the same character is depicted several times in the same composition, she appears amidst their cows and chickens as well as at the dinner table, unable to eat the meat from the animals she had cared for. Originally from the region of Scania in the south of Sweden, where she worked as a schoolteacher and took private painting lessons, Ryggen met her future husband on a trip to Dresden. Hans Ryggen was a landscape painter whose family owned a farm by the sea in the harsh northern landscape. The young couple moved there in 1924 and combined small-scale farming—for a long time their only source of income—with painting and weaving.
So we have to imagine a woman who taught herself weaving, who spun and dyed her own yarn, sitting at the loom whenever she did not work on the farm. She never used sketches and there are no loose ends in her tapestries—the front and back are supposed to look the same. For her, the loom was like a musical instrument that should be played by the heart, eyes and hands, all together. The purpose was to express her concern with humans, with the rights and wrongs of the world around her. With Trondheim hours away, she was even further from the art centers of the time and the political events she read about in newspapers and journals and heard about on the radio. She paid close attention to the rise of fascism and staunchly stood up for the weak and the repressed. During the German occupation of Norway the Ryggen family opened their doors to forced laborers and Ryggen made several works honoring Norwegian resistance to the occupiers. In Grini (1945) Hans Ryggen is seen painting skull signs for the Germans, wearing his prisoner’s garments, in the concentration camp of the same name outside Oslo.
Traditional weaving techniques from Scandinavia, on the one hand, and work by Francisco de Goya, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Gaugin on the other, were Ryggen’s main aesthetic influences. Yet she was an unabashed critic of modern art, the only exception being Pablo Picasso, who appears in one of her works and whose Guernica has often been used as a comparison to her Ethiopia. At the world’s fair in Paris in 1937 they were even shown in close proximity. Triggered by Italy’s 1936 attack on and invasion of the African nation, the horizontal tapestry, mainly in black to white with brown and beige tones, shows the heads of Victor Emmanuel, Haile Selassie, an unnamed African and Benito Mussolini with a spear going through his head, above a large abstract area. Mussolini’s head with the spear is one of the many examples of how she employed allegory in relation to the “real” people who populate her images. In addition to the ones mentioned above, she brings in Albert Einstein, Carl von Ossietzky, Winston Churchill, Alva Myrdal and Lyndon B. Johnson with his dog, among others.
Ryggen’s overall body of work has some of the spirit of the art of John Heartfield and George Grosz. The pathos and her Norwegian patriotism, which intensified after World War II, are more reminiscent of Eugene Delacroix. It is worth mentioning that in Schweden (1946) she ridicules her native Sweden for its lenience towards Nazi Germany. The domestic settings are rendered as more harmonious than those, for example, of Louise Bourgeois and Siri Derkert. As with all these artists, there is always a subject matter in Ryggen’s work that places her at the intersection of her own personal conditions and “big historical events”. After the second world war her motifs follow the political developments of the time, so she addresses nuclear armament in Mr Atom (1952), an individual worker’s rejection of Norway’s NATO membership in Jul Kvale (1956), and the Vietnam war in Blood in the grass (1966).
In the late 1930s Ryggen’s tapestries began to be exhibited both in Norway and abroad. Ethiopia, for example, was shown in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, though with a cloth covering Mussolini’s head with the spear. An exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institute toured the US for two years in the 1950s. In 1964 she represented Norway with twelve works at the Venice Biennial. The postwar period also brought public commissions for ambitious allegorical pieces, for the University of Oslo and for a new, prestigious government building designed by Erling Viksjö and opened in 1958. According to the artist, the Swedish proletarian author Harry Martinsson’s epic space odyssey Aniara came closest to the spirit of her work for the government, We are living on a star (1958). This is a dreamy homage to love and progress in blue and pink, with a nude woman and man embracing inside an oval shape, with two infants, stars and many heads and hands surrounding them. Martinsson was a favorite author of my grandmothers too, but their weaving resulted mostly in small pictures of plants and landscapes.
It was in front of Viksjö’s government building on 22 July 2011 that Anders Breivik Behring parked a mini-van filled with 950 kgs of explosives. The terror attack killed eight people, injured thirty and caused considerable material destruction. Then he went on to massacre sixty-nine people at the youth summer camp of the social democrats at Utöya. Like many other artworks in the government building, Ryggen’s tapestry was damaged by the explosion, and is currently undergoing renovation. Whether Behring Breivik knew it or not, the art of Ryggen represents exactly what he wanted to destroy: universal emancipation and equality, including socialism and feminism. In this case he failed. We are living on a star will soon be shown again, with the damage visible, just like the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin. The current relevance of We are living on a star and the rest of Ryggen’s work will shortly be examined at the Henie Onstad Art Center outside Oslo, where the damaged work will be shown, as well as at this summer’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel.
Originally published on Mousse 34 (Summer 2012)