Hannah Ryggen’s extraordinary tapestries captured the shocking events she lived through
Although you may not have heard of tapestry weaver Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970), she was one of the most extraordinary textile artists of the 20th century. Hitherto her work has been little known outside Scandinavia, but thanks to an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford that looks set to change.
Born in Sweden, Hannah Ryggen (née Jönsson) moved to Norway in 1924 following her marriage to Norwegian artist Hans Ryggen. The couple lived in Ørlandet, a wild and remote part of the country, where they ran a small farm.
Ryggen had originally worked as a schoolteacher in Malmö. She began painting in 1916 and attended art classes with the Danish painter Fredrik Krebs, but it was only after settling in Norway that she switched her allegiances to tapestry. Completely self-taught, it took her a decade to master.
Being a strong believer in self-sufficiency (a philosophy that she and her husband rigorously applied to their everyday life as farmers), Ryggen undertook every stage of the tapestry making process. Using hand-spun wool from her own sheep, coloured with natural dyes derived from bark, lichen and plants, she used a custom-made loom to create her tapestries. Rather than making preliminary sketches or following a preconceived design, she developed an idiosyncratic weaving technique known as the ‘direct method’. This allowed her to express her creative ideas freely, responding spontaneously to the colours and textures of the yarn.
Traditionally, tapestry has either been used as a purely decorative medium or as a vehicle for fanciful historical narratives or mythological scenes, often transcribed from paintings. What is so unusual about Ryggen is that she harnessed tapestry as a vehicle for exploring her response to events in the world, to address the issues that mattered most to her. Her strongly held political beliefs go some way towards explaining the originality of her approach but, at heart, her work was highly personal, an expression of her artistic vision and strength of character.
One of the earliest pieces in the exhibition, Ethiopia (1935), was prompted by Italy’s invasion of the African country. A powerful critique of fascism and the ineffectual response by the League of Nations to this blatant act of colonial aggression, it includes a prescient image of the Italian dictator Mussolini with his head skewered on a spear. So controversial was it deemed to be at the time that this section of the tapestry was folded over when the work was displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1937.
When the Germans occupied Norway during the Second World War and Ørlandet was chosen as the site for a huge military airbase, Ryggen was confronted by the full horror of fascism literally on her doorstep. Her husband was among those interned by the Nazis and 10 people from her local community, including the respected theatre director Henry Gleditsch, were rounded up and shot. In spite of personal danger, Ryggen responded defiantly to these shocking events in a work called 6 October 1942 (1943). In this tripartite tapestry, Hitler hovers malignly over the bloody scene of Gleditsch being shot in the head,
while Ryggen and her family escape in a boat resting on a bed of roses. This is not the type of subject matter normally associated with tapestry.
Stylistically, too, both in terms of colour (brown and pink predominate) and composition (Winston Churchill presides over proceedings perched on a tower), it is an arresting work. Although stylised and occasionally cartoonish, the figures are recognisably realistic. There is a visionary, dream-like quality to the design, sometimes nightmarish but never sentimental.
Socio-political themes continued to feature prominently in the artist’s later work. Post-war tapestries tackled weighty topics such as the threat of nuclear annihilation (Mr Atom, 1952) and the Vietnam War. We tend to think that it was only in the late 1960s and 70s that craftspeople began to address overtly political issues, but the pioneering Ryggen had been tackling them head-on since the 1930s. This in itself would make her work significant, but the fact that she encapsulated her ideas so strikingly in textile form makes her oeuvre unique.
For a 21st-century audience, the themes she addressed are as relevant today as they were 70 or 80 years ago. In visual terms, too, her work seems remarkably contemporary. After this exhibition, Ryggen will undoubtedly be on the international artistic radar.
Hannah Ryggen, Modern Art Oxford, 11 November 2017 to 18 February 2018.