The Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen spent six years as a painter’s apprentice before turning to weaving, and her renegade use of traditional rural techniques was just as attention-grabbing in 1930s Norway as it is now. Making tapestries almost exclusively for public spaces. The woven politics by the Norwegian artist has been known across Europe and America.
Hannah Ryggen (b. 1894, Malmö, Sweden – d. 1970, Trondheim, Norway) was one of Scandinavia’s most outstanding artistic figures of the 20th century. Ryggen remains an important artist, as she dealt with the pressing social and political concern of her time. Her art has enlightened issues from the rise of fascism and the Nazi occupation of Norway, to the proliferation of nuclear power and the Vietnam War.
Trained as a portrait painter
Born to a working class Swedish family in 1894, Ms. Ryggen trained as a portrait painter. On a trip to Dresden, Germany, as a young woman, she immersed herself in the work of Vermeer, Goya and El Greco. She was likewise versed in the art of her own time, making repeat visits to the huge 1914 Baltic Exhibition in Malmo, Sweden, at which paintings by Kandinsky and the German expressionist group Die Brücke were shown.
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She later abandoned painting in favor of weaving, which became her area of expertise after having moved with her husband to a wind-blown farm on a remote Norwegian farming community Ørlandet near Trondheim. On this shore, with no running water or electricity, she learned the processes of treating wool, spinning and weaving from local tradition, and developed as an artist by experimenting with materials and techniques from the world around her.
Hannah Ryggen worked utterly from scratch on her anti-fascist tapestries. Spinning wool from her sheep, she dyed it with things she’d found by foraging: birch leaves, bark moss and bog rosemary. Urine, too, was an essential part of this alchemical process, and visitors were asked to leave their donations in a bucket.
One of her earliest famous works is the frieze-like “Etiopia,” Ms. Ryggen’s furious response to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936. Portraits of the Emperor Haile Selassie and Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III are set above a large geometrically patterned rug panel suggesting Ms. Ryggen’s kinship with African weavers. “Etiopia” was shown by Norway at the Paris Expo of 1937 in the pavilion adjacent to Spain, where Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” offered a horrified response to the Nazi bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War.
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Woven politics by a Norwegian Artist
In one 1936 work, Hitler, Göring and Goebbels pop up like murderous glove puppets with blood-red faces and hands. Three decades later, Lyndon B Johnson’s beagle – for the artist a fluffy media distraction from the Vietnam war – becomes a similarly scarlet hound of hell.
Her works can be seen at the Hanna Ryggen center, Brekstad, Norway
Since her death in 1970, the Swedish-born artist has remained a defining figure in Scandinavia, although she has only recently been rediscovered by the wider world.
Woven Politics by a Norwegian Artist, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (pn top): Nazi occupation of Norway by Hannah Ryggen