30 September 2019

Hannah Ryggen and her family lived in simple conditions on a small independet farm on the west coast of Norway. Even as an artist she was self-sufficient and made all materials on her own.

By Katharina Knacker

When exactly is the tomato harvest in Germany? And where do kiwis grow? These days, many people don’t know which products are in season when, or even whether they actually flourish in the particular region. The key notions of “regional and seasonal”, however, are now becoming ever more important.

Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen grew up amid the shift from agricultural to industrial society. Together with her husband, Hans Ryggen, who grew up in a family of smallholders, she subsequently lived the simple life on a plot of land in the coastal region of Ørland, northwest of Trondheim. On her approximately five hectares of land, she cultivated her own fruit and vegetables and raised livestock, including geese, sheep and chickens.

Hannah Ryggen was well aware of the difficulties of agriculture – proximity to nature was very important to her. The idea of self-sufficiency was her philosophy for life: “Every man and woman, rich or poor, ought to be raised capable of two things: producing their own food and supporting themselves. It is unjust that some serve others. Everyone should work, no one should be above another.” Hannah Ryggen herself put this attitude into practice and provided for herself and her family. 

It is unjust that some serve others. Everyone should work, no one should be above another.

Hannah Ryggen
Hans Ryggen painting in the garden, Hannah and Mona in the foreground, undated (1920s), Collection of NTNU University Library, Trondheim
Hannah Ryggen, Vi og våre dyr (Us and Our Animals), 1934 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

In her work “We and Our Animals”, Ryggen shows the family at a long table, surrounded by animals from their farm. Here, they are fed and cared for, and yet ultimately serve as a source of food. Ryggen addresses this dichotomy in the center of the tapestry, in which a decapitated goose walks along in front of the lunch table as one woman attempts to shield her eyes from it.

Ryggen dyed the wool herself and got her colors from nature

For Ryggen, however, this close connection to nature manifested itself not only in her private life and her relationship with food, but also in her art. The wool and linen materials she used were purely natural products from the region. Furthermore, Ryggen dyed the wool herself, obtaining the dyes from nature. She used sweet cherry, birch leaves, rock lichen, pine bark, junipers, herb-paris and much more from the area around her. Ryggen’s trademark became the color “potty blue” or “piss blue”, which quickly became a favorite topic among journalists because of its special ingredients.

Hannah Ryggen sitting in front of her first work “Eva’s Daughter” in Malmö, 1922, Collection of NTNU University Library, Trondheim

Ryggen apparently, so the story goes, befriended heavy drinkers who collected their urine for her in bottles. The unusually high ammonia content created a vibrant blue. Even aside from this, Ryggen often produced very bold colors. She understood light would fade the colors over time, yet this change process was simultaneously part of her work. Since nature is in a permanent state of flux, her works had to be too.

It was important to her that her works could be seen in public spaces

The act of dyeing things is no easy matter – a number of different variables have to be controlled at the same time: The proportions have to add up, and even the season in which the plant was harvested plays a role, as does the intensity of the light. Ryggen acquired a fundamental knowledge of the chemical processes involved in dyeing and also passed this knowledge on in courses. However, her contemporaries often wrongfully dismissed her way of working as primitive, naïve, or rustic.

Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Are Living on a Star), 1958 © H. Ryggen, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Thor Nielsen

Yet her subjects focused on global-political events and critically addressed fundamental themes in society, including abuse of power or the atrocities of war. Ryggen was as true to her world view in her private life as she was in her expression as an artist. She never wanted to sell to private buyers, since it was important to her that her works were available and in the public space for anyone to see – as is the case now in the Schirn.

Hans, Mona and Hannah Ryggen in Ørlan­det, undated, NTNU University Library, Trondheim