10 September 2019

Monumental, political, uncompromising: The extraordinary tapestries of Hannah Ryggen this fall at the Schirn.

By Schirn Magazin

With her monumental tapestries the artist Hannah Ryggen (1894–1970) created a powerful, politically inspired oeuvre. Working from a small self-sufficient farm on the west coast of Norway, through her artworks she launched attacks on Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini, and made strong statements of support for the victims of fascism and National Socialism. The Schirn is now dedicating a major exhibition to the Swedish-Norwegian artist.

In the about twenty-five tapestries presented, she takes on the fundamental issues in society: the atrocities of war, the abuse of power, our dependence on nature, and familial relationships as well as those with our fellow men and women. Many of her large-scale works deal with the events and political debates in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, with her socialist beliefs shining through. The exhibition focuses on Ryggen’s monumental tapestries and aims to examine how the artist represented a different kind of modernism—one in which elements from folk art and mythology were mixed with contemporary issues.

Her uncompromising works provide an uncanny reminder of the need to fight

Ryggen explored an entirely new range of motifs while using a traditional medium for an unprecedented purpose: making portable murals that communicated her potent political messages to the public. In these times of increasing inequality, nationalism, and populism, Ryggen’s uncompromising artworks continue to resonate, and provide an uncanny reminder of the need to fight for the principles of humanism.

Hannah Ryggen at the loom, around 1964, Adresseavisen, Trondheim

The Schirn presents Hannah Ryggen’s monumental tapestries, with which she—throughout her life—took on issues such as power politics and international conflicts, National Socialism and fascism in Europe, the role of art, and the position of women in society. In her oeuvre, Ryggen combines the personal with the political. Ryggen’s anti-fascist and anti-war works are in focus of the presentation at the Schirn. Both the number of these works and their large formats testify to the immense creative energy with which the well-read and well-informed artist dealt with national and international events. Conceived as public commentaries, these tapestries had a significant political impact. With “Etiopia” (“Ethiopia”, 1935), Ryggen denounced Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. One of her first works to be exhibited internationally, it was presented in the Norwegian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937, in close proximity to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”—but was censored due to fears of offending the Italian state.

After the World War II, Ryggen continued to take position on contemporary incidents

Also, during the occupation of Norway by the National Socialists, Ryggen produced tapestries that made clear statements about current events, despite the danger involved in doing so. In many of her works, Ryggen commemorated the resistance of victims of persecution. After the Second World War, Ryggen continued to take a position on contemporary incidents with, for instance, expressing opinions on Norway’s controversial accession to NATO and the arming of the world powers with nuclear weapons.

Hannah Ryggen, Drømmedød (Death of Dreams), 1936 © H. Ryggen, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Anders Sundet Solberg
Hannah Ryggen, Blod i gresset (Blood in the Grass), 1966, Courtesy VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Dag Fosse / KODE
Hannah Ryggen, Etiopia (Ethiopia), 1935 © H. Ryggen / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Anders Sundet Solberg
Hannah Ryggen, 6. october 1942 (6 october 1942), 1943 © H. Ryggen, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Thor Nielsen

At the age of seventy-two, she wove Blod i gresset (Blood in the Grass, 1966) in protest against the war being waged in Vietnam, using artificial dye for the first time for the blood-red grid pattern. The artist spent almost ten years teaching herself to master all technical aspects. The materials for her weaving work she collected from her farm and the surrounding nature; Ryggen spun the yarn herself and colored the wool with natural dyes obtained from plants. She combined various pictorial traditions, such as traditional Norwegian folk-art weaving and elements from fresco painting, with a modern formal language. Characteristic of Ryggen’s artistic approach is her narrative, often scenic or theatrical form of presentation and the collage-like compositions, as well as the blending of real, fictitious, and mythical individuals and motifs.

Hannah Ryggen, Trojansk hest/Picassoteppet (Trojan Horse/Picasso Tapestry), 1949-56, owned by the Norwegian State, Office of the Prime Minister, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

Ryggen was well-informed on the contemporary art scene, and in some tapestries directly examined the work of other artists. Particular attention is given to Ryggen’s engagement with women’s politics. She repeatedly reflected on the role of women in a male-dominated society. The large-format triptych “Ugift mor” (“Unwed Mother”, 1937) is dedicated to the circumstances of single mothers, whereas “Mors hjerte” (“Mother’s Heart”, 1947) is a personal work about her own insights into motherhood and the complicated relationship with her daughter Mona, who suffered from epilepsy. This haunting portrayal of mother and child is a pioneering work in the way it presents a resolutely female range of experiences.

She unfurls a philosophical description of human existence

Hannah Ryggen’s iconic work, “Vi lever på en stjerne” (“We Are Living on a Star”, 1958), commissioned for a lobby of Oslo’s Government Quarter, forms the conclusion of the exhibition. Ryggen took about six months to collect plants and dye the wool for this large-format tapestry, and another thirteen to weave it. Here, she unfurled a philosophical description of human existence as well as presenting the central positions of art and love as personal and political forces. This tapestry was damaged on July 22, 2011, in a bomb attack on the government building by the right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. Although repaired by conservators, it still bears a trace, like a scar, in the bottom right corner: a reminder of this assault on democracy.

Hannah Ryggen, Mors hjerte (Mother's Heart), 1947 © H. Ryggen / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Thor Nielsen
Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We are Living on a Star), 1958 © H. Ryggen, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Thor Nielsen