Friday 1 December 2017

Woven Histories, Hannah Ryggen

'Every man and woman, whether rich or poor, ought to be raised capable of two things: producing their own food and supporting themselves. It is an indignity that some serve others. Everyone should work, no one should be above another. Equality for all. We are all flesh and blood, just the same'. Hannah Ryggen.

Woven Histories, Hannah Ryggen at Modern Art, Oxford.

In a wind-blown farm in a remote rural community in Norway (five hours by steamboat to the closest city), with no running water or electricity, Hannah Ryggen and her family made their living as subsistence farmers. Ryggen worked from scratch on her political tapestries, using a homemade loom. What is astonishing is that she made no preparatory drawings but started weaving a design she saw in her head.

Tapestry weaving is a laborious, technically skilled, and resolutely handmade enterprise, with no shortcuts. Ryggen viewed the handloom and its weaving processes as forms of creative labour with material connections to the domestic sphere, political activism and class struggle.

Her commitment as a member of the Communist Party informed how she lived, the means of production for her work, and the subject matters she chose. 'Even as a child I was a red revolutionary'.

She did not believe in selling her tapestries to private collectors except under the direst of financial circumstances; she wished for them to be in public ownership and exhibited where they were freely accessible to all as public statements. To this end, she entered into an arrangement in later life, which placed the largest group of her works in the National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Trondheim, in return for a monthly stipend.

She rejected abstraction common to much of modern art, and expressed her admiration for Pablo Picasso alone amongst her artist contemporaries. He himself declared: 'Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war....'

The art and craft of tapestry enabled Ryggen to combine her ethical, political and aesthetic concerns into easily transportable works of art. Roots for this approach range from the weaving traditions of the farming working class, to the international Arts and Crafts movement that advocated for craftsmanship as a socialist act of reclamation and resistance. Both ancient and modern at once, Ryggen's work is unique in its fusion of Norwegian tapestry-making heritage and its focus on current affairs with a strong political voice.

Finally, Ryggen was included in significant international exhibitions during her lifetime, becoming the first female artist to represent Norway at the Venice Viennale in 1964.

6 October 1942, (tapestry weave in woold and linen, (1943)

This tapestry examines the impact of the Nazi occupation across the Trondheim region of Norway, during which time Ryggen's friends were persecuted for their protest art. The date of the tapestry's title refers to the declaration of martial law in the area. The following morning, the Nazis executed 10 local leaders as a pre-emptive warning against dissent, including the theatre director Henry Gleditsch.

The tapestry is comprised of three separately woven sections, later joined together. In the left section Ryggen reimagines Gleditsch's murder by SS officers as delivered by the pistols of a flying Adolf Hitler, oak leaves (symbols of the Third Reich) emitting from his backside.  Gleditsch is dressed in character as Doctor Relling from Ibsen's The Wild Duck, a reference to his arrest just prior to the play's dress rehearsal on the evening of 6 October.

The central section of the tapestry presents Winston Churchill standing guard in his fortress enclosure - perhaps a reference to the Norwegian government and monarchy's wartime exile in London. Finally, the far right third of the tapestry depicts the Ryggen family - Mona, Hans and Hannah - at sea in a small boat, safe but in choppy waters. Above them float the red heads of local police leaders, collaborators who betrayed their city.

detail of first panel

detail of second panel

detail of third panel

Freedom, 1941, (tapestry weave in wool and linen)

This tapestry depicts the first citizens executed by the German SS in Norway's struggle for freedom during the five-year Nazi occupation. Using overtly Christian archetypes, Ryggen depicts the two victims as heads on a plate held by an angel.

The lawyer and communist Viggo Hansteen and the trade union and labour activist Rolf Wickstrom were murdered on 10 September 1941 in Oslo. Hansteen had been part of the Norwegian government exile in London, and active in presenting the Norwegian Nazi Party taking control of the confederation of Trade Unions. Wickstrom was a steward and chair of union workers. They were honoured by a memorial at the site of their execution in 1948.

Grini, 1945, (tapestry weave in wool and linen)

Grini was the name of the Nazi labour camp near Oslo where Hannah Ryggen's husband Hans was imprisoned, following his arrest on Orlandet by the German authorities in May 1944.

The Trondheim region was of strategic importance to the Germans. Orlandet became a major Nazi military base during WWII: an airport was built between 1941- 44 using prisoner of war labour, and there were over 7,000 German soldiers stationed there. The Ryggens routinely witnessed acts of torture and the movement of starving captives past their home en route to forced labour. While Ryggen would flagrantly display her anti-fascist tapestries on her washing line for the German soldiers to see, she was paid no attention. Instead her husband Hans was arrested as a political dissident, and sent to Grini prison camp.

Grini combines the daily realities of Hans' incarceration. He is shown painting a skull and crossbones, a reference to his forced portrait painting of his Nazi guards. His fellow prisoners' faces are obscured with barbed wire, and a spectral vision of their daughter Mona appears on horseback.

The tapestry's warm colours of red, orange and peach are echoed in Mother's Heart, another work hanging nearby. While Grini's colour palette perhaps seems at odds with its distressing subject matter of political detention, Ryggen chose rich red hues when depicting themes that were deeply personal and intimate: her family above all else.





Jul Kvale, 1956

The subject of this tapestry, Jul Kvale was a former communist politician in Norway who in 1956 was working in Oslo as a director of social assistance (the equivalent of Social Services in the UK).

In that year he gave an interview to the Dagbladet newspaper in which he condemned Norway's role as one of the founding members of NATO in 1949. While Kvale was a little-known figure in the country's grassroots movement against nuclear armament, Ryggen elevated him to an icon for the political left and its increasingly radical resistance to NATO's military alliance in the Cold War era.

Kvale stands to the right of the work with a small figure - thought to be Ryggen - grasping Kvale's outstretched arm. The intertwined composition of floating heads to the left references the new post-war establishment, including figures like Konrad Adenauer, Halvard Lange, and Norwegian foreign minister Trygve Lie, who became the first UN General Secretary.

Mr Atom, 1952

This is one of Ryggen's most symbolic and compositionally refined tapestries. The regal 'atom king', a personification of nuclear weapons and by extension NATO, sits enthroned in a serene cross-legged position, stretching out his arms to hold a flower and feed a grazing cow. Beneath him, an allegorical Adam and Eve are shown nude, distinct in their unadorned bodies from the colourful fields of red, green and bright blue hues. Grasping the woman's left hand, and oriented at a 90-degree angle, is the artist herself, with her distinctive cropped bob, holding an oversized tapestry needle.


We and Our Animals, 1934

This frieze-like tapestry depicts the Ryggen family (Hannah, her husband Hans, a painter, and their young daughter Mona) at their farm on Orlandet, an isolated, windswept peninsula in the Trondheimsfjord in mid-Norway. They are surrounded by the animals on their farm, which they have reared to provide them with milk, meat and wool, among other basic necessities.

With her distinctive cropped bob, Ryggen features herself within two different scenes across the tapestry's running length: feeding the farm's chickens and cows, and sat at the family dinner table, unable to eat the meat from the animals she has lovingly raised.

Ethiopia, 1935

Ethiopia is Ryggen's first tapestry to address a major political event outside of Norway: the Italian invasion of the East African country by Benito Mussolini's forces in October 1935, resulting in its annexation. Within the upper third of the tapestry's abstract geometric planes of browns, reds and creams, Ryggen depicts the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I and, at the extreme right, Mussolini whose head is speared by an Ethiopian soldier.

When this tapestry was exhibited at the Paris World's Fair in 1937, this unequivocally condemnatory section was folded back on itself; an act of censorship designed to avoid offending the Italian government. Picasso's Guernica, a powerful critique of the violent bombing of the Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, was on show in the same international exhibition but remained uncensored.

Liselotte Herrmann, 1938

Liselotte Herrmann was a young German woman who in 1937 was sentenced to death following her conviction for high treason. The Gestapo had already murdered her husband. As a Communist Resistance fighter working against the Nazi government, she had obtained top secret information about Germany's rearmament plans, including the building of an underground ammunition factory, which she then relayed to the KPD's (German Communist Party) office-in-exile in Switzerland. Herrmann was executed by guillotine in Berlin on 20 June 1938, after almost three years of imprisonment.

Death of Dreams, 1936

Nazi swastikas occupy the centre of this dark prison scene. They operate both as symbols of the Third Reich and as a literal means of imprisonment, merging with the railings of the prison in which so many souls are gathered. Dragging a lifeless corpse over the swastikas is a trio of figures in red: Ryggen's representation of Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler.

Appearing from behind the prison bars, Albert Einstein clutches a violin in the top right section. To the left, the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize winner and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky displays his shackled hands. His conviction for espionage followed the 1931 publication of his report on the covert rebuilding of Germany's air force; an infringement of the Treaty of Versailles. Goering described von Ossietzky's request for temporary release to accept his prize as 'an act of civil disobedience' against the German state.



Poem by T.S. Eliot, 1952

The focus of this tapestry is a Norwegian translation of several lines from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. This poem reflects on humans relationships with time.

The artist is shown in brown and blue tones in the top centre of the composition, holding a ball of wool and a weaving tool. The central spinning wheel motif references Ryggen's creative process, and acts as a metaphor for the circularity and endless renewal of life.

Dominating and dividing the tapestry is a woman, naked and horizontal, in the warm gold and red tones often used by Ryggen to depict passionate personal issues - her subjective experiences of life.

This personal and contemplative work makes clear the association between love and creativity in the mind of the artist. As Hannah Ryggen once described her loom: 'I always called it my harp, which I played - and so it was, quite literally. The threads of the warp were the strings, and my fingers rushed out and in between them. I wove all my tapestries on it and still do'.



A Free One, 1947-48

As an artist continually striving for the principles of equality and the dissolution of entrenched class boundaries, A Free One epitomises Ryggen's eloquent form of protest tapestry art.

Entangled in its decorative pattern work are struggling workers, indulged aristocrats, and compromised politicians: all interlaced to produce an allegorical commentary on economic inequality.

Norwegian Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen is encircled by the mass of gold coins accumulated by the toil of the working classes, while power-hungry politicians climb the ladders on either side of him. By contrast the upper class remain static in the top right - comfortable with their position of authority and control. The 'free one' of the title is possibly the artist herself, represented in the same muted grey tones as the struggling workers, holding a large sunflower in the bottom right of the tapestry.




Fishing in the Sea of Debt, 1933

Spurred on by the terrible impact of the economic crash that had reached Norway's shores by the early 1930s, this tapestry portrays the country's banks benefiting from the hardship and misery of working class people.

At its centre is the bank's debt collector, standing on the shore while below him, men, women and children drown in the sea of debt. The banker's wife sits comfortably to one side, enjoying a lavish meal, while to his right a doctor takes the very last coin from a recently deceased man as payment for his services.

This tapestry is widely considered to be Ryggen's first mature work, completed after a decade of self-taught weaving practice on her home-built loom, mastering her technique and style. Finishing in the Sea of Debt demonstrates her newfound synthesis of composition, colour palette and subject matter which come together in undulating waves of figures and patterns.



Domestic Gods, 1951

In this work Ryggen tackles the 'domestic gods' of Norwegian art and literature, in an implicit challenge to the recognised upholders of Nordic culture. The painter Edvard Munch, probably the country's most celebrated artist, is shown floating above the rural farming scene.

As the curator Oystein Ustvedt argues, 'her choice of weaving can be seen as a statement of identification. The association with women's work, folk art and domestic crafts fits with her pronounced anti-elitism and class consciousness'.


Self-portrait, 1914

This self-portrait of 20 year old Hannah Ryggen dates from the period when she was a schoolteacher in her Swedish hometown of Malmo, when she began taking evening painting classes. The portrait was painted just before she apprenticed to the Danish painter Frederik Krebs in Lund. In this early self-portrait, the young Hannah stares defiantly out at the viewer in a head-on pose, her focused and expressive character plain to see.


We had an opportunity to watch a video of Ryggen talking about her art.

In this section of the video she talks about the time when her husband was prisoner in the Nazi camp in Grini - a difficult for them which is depicted in the eponymous tapestry.

'As far as the weaving technique is concerned, it is very simple: a horizontal line is interlaced with or passed around a vertical line. Triangular sections of the tapestry are built up roughly like this [sketch]. This is how the Baldishol and Coptic tapestries are made, and mine as well. I am limited by the vertical warp, you by the block of stone, and the resistance involved is something we both have to understand and submit to'. Hannah Ryggen, letter to the sculptor Dyre Vaa, 1946.

The wool that Ryggen used was provided by local sheep which she spun and dyed with things she found by foraging: birch leaves, bark moss and bog rosemary. Thus, she was able 'to bring nature into my tapestries'. Urine was an essential part of this process - visitors were asked to leave their donations in a bucket. In this way she was able to control her tapestries' entire chain of production.

Unfortunately the tapestry that she is talking about in this section of the video was not part of the exhibition.

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