Summary of Hannah Ryggen
Hannah Ryggen is a vital and unique figure in the story of modern art, particularly within the Nordic countries. Trained as a painter and educated in the Old Masters, she became a weaver in order to engage with the folk traditions of her native Norway. Yet Ryggen shied away neither from the experiments of twentieth century art nor the horrors of twentieth century politics, producing stark modernist murals that told stories of love, life, war, death, and hope in a potent visual language. Museum director Philipp Demandt describes Ryggen as "undoubtedly one of the most important Scandinavian women artists of the twentieth century."
- Hannah Ryggen retooled textile arts for the era of modernism. Tapestry-making was traditionally seen as a ceremonial craft or a folk practice, used either to depict historical events as propaganda for medieval monarchs or to make devotional and decorative items for the home. Ryggen, however, took to the loom with the examples of Northern-European Expressionism in her head, creating emotionally charged, compositionally daring, richly colored works that depicted both her interior emotional life and the chaos of her age.
- Because of the traditional storytelling role of textile art, Ryggen found it effective for composing polemical narrative works that expressed her anti-fascist and anti-colonialist views. Using her work to depict everything from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Nazi occupation of Norway to the Vietnam war, Ryggen showed that folk art was not stuck in the past, but had a role to play in processing and reacting to the traumas of the present.
- Developing textiles into a legitimate fine-art practice, Ryggen did much for women artists who, because of their gender, felt relegated to work in more feminized and craft-oriented practices. In the wake of pioneers such as Ryggen, several generations of women artists, including Sheila Hicks, Cecilia Vicuña, Magdalena Abakanowicz and many others, have found in fibre art a vehicle for daring experiment and radical commentary on themes of womanhood and gender, politics and military conflict, and our relationship to colonized cultures.
Important Art by Hannah Ryggen
Fishing in the Sea of Debt (Fiske ved gjeldens hav)
This early work of Hannah Ryggen's comments on the economic crisis that swept across Europe in the 1930s. Living on and running a farm with her husband in Norway, Ryggen was keenly aware of the struggles of farmers and fishermen in her village, while those in power attempted to profit from other's misfortunes. This work details some of those struggles, including vivid imagery of two men and two children struggling to stay afloat in a sea of bloody water. Another woman, drowned, floats nearby. The crate of fish and cage of chickens in the foreground represent livestock and catch, the sale of which is not enough to prevent the family from amassing debt. In the background, the rich profit at the unfortunate protagonists' expense; a doctor steals from the body of a man washed upon the shore, while the wife of a banking commissioner enjoys a feast.
This work highlights both Ryggen's skill as a weaver and her ability to use her art to bring to light social injustices that were personally felt. As art historian Marit Paasche explains, through this tapestry, "Ryggen revives the medieval way of composing in color fields, while also drawing on modernist painting and her own skills as a painter. She also, in her characteristic and expressionistic way, includes aspects of her private life in her treatment of public issues. Ryggen had personally experienced having the last of her egg money taken by the mortgage commissioner, so she knew what it felt like to be burdened by debt."
Color played an important role in Ryggen's artmaking as can be seen in this work. Of this tapestry, she stated, "I realized that I wanted a glazed surface effect, in a way like what the Old Masters achieved. So the whole tapestry had to be in various tones of red, and then there had to be a green hue that stood in contrast to it." Here we see the fruits of her traditional training, which included study of Old Masters paintings.
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Trondheim, Norway
Us and Our Animals (Vi og våre dyr)
In this deeply personal tapestry Ryggen presents multiple woven images of her and her family, including herself feeding animals on the left side of the tapestry, the family including her daughter Mona seated at the table in the center, and partner Hans with the Ryggen's beloved horse to the left. Ryggen's hand is held over her face at the table as she turns herself away from the site of a decapitated goose, a pet that eventually had to be killed for food. In her words, Ryggen describes the work stating, "I had ten geese. We slaughtered all of them at once. I haven't eaten goose since. It is to that memory that I have woven this tapestry."
Moving as a bride to her husband's farm, Ryggen had to undergo a long period of adjustment to the difficulties of an agricultural life. The couple struggled to make ends meet and most of their income came from the sale of their livestock. This presented a difficulty for Ryggen who grew attached to the animals, often considering them to be like pets, even friends. This work presents some of the emotional drama of farming life.
Ryggen did not delude herself as to the true nature of life on the farm. However, she never lost her sympathy for the animals and their sacrifices. As art historian Marit Paasche explains, "there is realism and a recognition of the necessity of having to slaughter animals in order to survive. Yet Ryggen never took it lightly. The animals were important, and they were loved. The physical despair with which the motif is depicted is almost palpable." In this way this tapestry is an example of art being a vehicle for personal expression and historical memory; a way for Ryggen to preserve her pets' memories while paying tribute to her family and the hard life they lived.
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - Malmö Art Museum, Malmö, Sweden
Ethiopia is one of several works in which artist Hannah Ryggen engages with the political tyrannies of her era. As author Zachary Small describes, this work "depicts the Italian invasion of North Africa with quiet melancholy. While this piece lacks the frenetic energy seen in her later works, it communicates solemnity in the face of war. Organized as a horizontal diptych, the top portion of "Ethiopia" depicts Benito Mussolini's sacking of the country. Raised hands in the center symbolize a united protest against the fascist Italian dictator, but the falling iron prison bars express futility. Meanwhile, in the upper right-hand corner, an Ethiopian man stabs a particularly blockheaded Mussolini through the head with a spear. (Some wishful thinking on Ryggen's behalf, no doubt.)"
As much an educational as a political statement, this work Ryggen sheds light and passes judgement, not only on the actions of the dictator Mussolini but also on the European nations who refused to come to Ethiopia's aid. As art historian Marit Paasche explains, "Ethiopia is, to the greatest extent possible, an activist work. Ryggen's desire to express solidarity through art is fully realized here[,] by showing an Ethiopian driving a spear through Mussolini's head....Hailie Selassie, Ethiopia's emperor, had requested economic and military aid from the League of Nations, but to no avail; the young nation was essentially left in the lurch. England and France wanted Mussolini on their side against Hitler and therefore...allowed Italy to annex Ethiopia."
While it is easy to become fully absorbed with the powerful political message of this work, it is also important to note the complexity of the design elements, which brilliantly complement the work's central theme. As Small explains, "below [the scene], something far more abstract is happening. Here, Ryggen is experimenting with the poetic patterning and geometry of her textiles. If the top portion expresses rage and sadness, then the bottom portion reveals something more abstract: an attempt to grasp order from the entropy of war."
Tapestry woven with pile in wool and linen - National Museum for Decorative Arts and Design, Trondheim, Norway
Liselotte Herrmann Decapitated (Liselotte Herrmann halshuggen)
Sometimes looking at Hannah Ryggen's tapestries provides the viewer with a searing account of a historical event, ripped from the day's headlines. This work tells the story of a German student, Liselotte Herrmann, who, after her husband's death at the hands of the Gestapo, became a Communist resistance fighter. Eventually, Herrmann was arrested and sentenced to death for treason. While in prison, where she stayed for more than a year and a half, she asked to see her young son Walter one last time before her death. The Nazi guards instead tormented her by throwing his clothes into the cell with her. In Ryggen's work, Herrmann is feeding her child during happier times, seated in a garden, while in sharp contrast in the bottom right corner the woman is depicted in her cell, holding her son's clothes.
This work shows the skill with which Ryggen took real events and translated them into complex narratives of woven imagery. According to Paasche, "in this tapestry, the tragedy unfolds in succession, as in folk art weavings, early Christian decorative traditions, or the more modern photo reportage from this time. The subject is clearly inspired by the classical motif of the Madonna in the rose garden." Such renderings also nod to the classical painting style in which Ryggen was trained and the great early masters she idolized, including Rembrandt.
The importance Ryggen placed on the events depicted in this tapestry is clear from the thought and effort she put into creating this detailed and layered narrative. She later said of the work, "[t]he whole picture is always about the colour for me, colour for me has much more significance than form. I feel with the colours....Up there she's in her home, down there in the prison, the whole weaving like a cross, this brick wall is like the dividing line in her life."
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - National Museum for Decorative Arts and Design, Trondheim, Norway
6 October 1942 (6. Oktober 1942)
Hannah Ryggen was bitterly opposed to the political dictatorships that overran Europe during her lifetime, and used her art to shed light on their brutal actions. Among those leaders Ryggen most despised was Adolf Hitler. In this tapestry she depicts the consequences of his Nazi invasion of her town in Norway in 1940 during World War II. As author Figgy Guyver explains, the title refers to "the date that martial law was declared in Trondheim by occupying powers," while the piece "depicts the tragic execution of prominent citizens.
Hitler is shown in caricature, brandishing a pistol and surrounded by Norwegian sympathizers including the Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling and the author Knut Hamsun," presented as cawing black birds. To the left the actor Henry Gleditsch has been shot and lies in his wife's arms. His execution had been ordered by Reich officer Josef Terboven for his resistance work. Terboven is depicted, along with two other men, floating above a boat in which Ryggen has depicted herself, her husband and her daughter. Hitler is shown hovering above the executed man. As art historian Marit Paasche states, "with a pistol in each hand, [he] floats like an omnipresent devil....Ryggen ridicules Hitler by depicting him with oak leaves issuing from his anus."
This work shows Ryggen's capacity to memorialize the key political narratives of her era. And yet the work is also biographical, with events presented, as it were, through the eyes of the artist herself. The placement of Ryggen and her family in the boat shows their desire to flee and yet their inability to do so. The formal and compositional aspects of the work were also vital in ensuring that the message carried across - as Paasche explains by outlining how Ryggen's works grew in conception over time: "[Ryggen's] journal entries reveal that the colour scheme also played an important role, often directing the composition. Once the entire image 'sat' well enough, she could begin to weave."
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - National Museum for Decorative Arts and Designs, Trondheim, Norway
A deeply personal work, Hannah Ryggen's Grini can be viewed as her attempt to come to terms with the arrest and imprisonment of her husband Hans by the Nazis for suspected resistance activities. She has depicted Hans, an artist, creating work under duress for his enemies. As art historian Marit Paasche describes, Haans's uniform displays his prisoner number, 13243, while "he sits and paints the skull-and-crossbones signs that the Nazis placed in the minefields. Along the right edge of the image, Ryggen has woven a column-like structure from which faces peer out, and directly above Hans a number of gaunt faces gaze at him from behind a barbed-wire enclosure. From the left, Mona [the Ryggens' daughter] comes riding in, as if in a dream....Behind Mona is an open 'window', where we can see a house in a landscape: perhaps Rønnan [the name of their home] and Ørlandet [their town]."
In many ways, Hans was Ryggen's world. They worked the farm together and made art together; even the loom she worked on was designed and made for her by her husband. The loss she felt when Hans was taken from her was immense and, as so often when the world seemed too much to bear, Hannah turned to her art to make sense of all that was happening. Of this period she wrote: "Hans is everything in the world to me, without him I am estranged and alone." In this work she seems to be willing him to hang on, to survive so that they can once more be together. As Paasche explains, "through her messenger, their daughter, Hannah bestows a dream on Hans, or the power to imagine; she wanted to open for him a way out of his imprisonment."
Ryggen here shows how folk art and fine art can exist in the same breath. While often her works express modernist compositional sensibilities, in this work she seems more anchored to the past. According to Paasche, "Grini is one of the works in Ryggen's oeuvre that draws most heavily on folk art motifs. The fiery red hues symbolize both intensity and danger. The nude woman on horseback sent with flowers to liberate the captive is like an image from a fairy tale..."
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - Trondheim kunstmuseum, Trondheim, Norway
Trojan Horse (Trojansk hest)
This tapestry is unique in Hannah Ryggen's oeuvre in that it was completed in 1949 and yet, years later, in 1956 she created a second tapestry as a response or sequel to it, The Picasso Tapestry. Eventually the two works were purchased and hung together in the Norwegian government's offices. While both deal with the subject of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and the development of modern art, this work also highlights Ryggen's interest in Greek mythology, using it as the vehicle to tell of Picasso's importance.
As art historian Marit Paasche states, "Ryggen wove Trojan Horse as a commentary on contemporary art.... Ryggen casts Picasso in the role of Odysseus and has him smuggle modernism into the kingdom with the help of a wooden horse." A Greek solider stands looking at the horse, along with a Greek maiden depicted in statuesque form. Picasso's role is unclear to the soldier and he is presented to the viewer barely visible in outline form in the bottom right of the work, holding a large palette with paint. Abstracted faces in blue watch the scene unfold above him, as if they represent the new abstract style which will surpass the styles of antiquity.
Having dealt with social justice, political, feminist, and personal themes, here Ryggen takes on a different subject: art itself. After encountering modern art on a trip with her family to Paris after the war ended, she grew particularly fond of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, though she claimed to dislike the movement of Cubism to which they were attached. She once stated that "abstract art has just one task, a subordinate subservient task: to dissolve lines and colour fields...I snub my nose at all these master of the cube, French and Norwegian." This perhaps partly represented her sense that modernism might bring about the demise of traditionally important ceremonial crafts such as textiles, as Paasche explains with reference to this work: "it is natural to read the whole composition as a visual tale of the development of art, in which Picasso's hegemonic position is established at the expense of classical art and representation. The span of time represented in the motif demonstrates weaving's central position as a means of communicating ideas in the European intellectual realm, from antiquity up to modernism."
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - Collection of the Norwegian state, Office of the Prime Minister
Mother's Heart (Mors hjerte)
Mother's Heart is a celebration of womanhood. A mother is depicted three times in this work, clothed and embracing a large red heart on the left with a young child near her; next, slightly closer to the center in the foreground, naked and holding something red in her hand; and then again, large once more on the far right, naked and looking up at a large heart which has the face of a child in it. In the center of the work is a twisting column of green in which several female faces of different ages can be seen looking out.
In describing this work, Ryggen wrote, "the mother's heart becomes so large. She herself disappears, the child comes first. Lightning strikes. The heart breaks. The mother is deeply down. Alone. Everyone is alone. The mother pulls herself together. She bears what she has to bear." Ryggen speaks of what she knows as she and her daughter were forced to bear much alone while her husband was held in a Nazi prison camp. She also had to endure the agony of watching her daughter suffer from epileptic seizures, for which Ryggen could not obtain proper treatments due to the restrictions on travel during the war.
While many of Ryggen's artworks were politically motivated, here we see a strong feminist bent to her narrative, as well as a personal reference to her roles as both daughter and mother. Speaking of the importance of this work and its impact, art historian Marit Paasche states: "Mother's Heart is one of the most powerful mother-child representations in the history of European art, and it is a pioneering work, made as early as 1947, long before feminism urged the inclusion of such subjects and themes in art. Ryggen lets the drama unfold, unconstrained, in every imaginable nuance of pink to red, and depicts how the tremendous love between mother and child can harbor both the deepest sorrow and the most profound joy."
Tapestry woven in wool and linen - National Museum for Decorative Arts and Design, Trondheim, Norway
Blood in the Grass (Blut im Gras)
This tapestry seems to be divided into two distinct parts. To the left is a field of green grass crossed with bold lines of red; on the right a male figure rendered in shades of pink, red, and orange is shown wearing a large pink cowboy hat. A dog sits at his feet.
The man is US President Lyndon Johnson, whose actions in Vietnam Ryggen strongly opposed. Rows of black missiles pass over his body, heading in the direction of the south-east Asian country with which America was then at war. The damage the missiles will wreak is made clear by the blood-red lines that score the field of grass.
This work offers proof that Ryggen continued to be engaged with themes of social justice and to make politically motivated works until the very end of her life. Speaking of Johnson's policies, she said: "one cannot fathom that the Americans have elected such a stupid man as president...America won't win - but will leave a dark stain on history that can never be made right again - despite all those dollars." Noting the importance of this work, author Zachary Small states, "as a cumulative image, Blood in the Grass is a striking symbol of American ignorance during the Vietnam War. As with all her work, here, Ryggen is vigilant in the face of war, using art as an accountant of injustice."
From a formal point of view, this work is unique in the artist's choice of colors. While color had always played an important part in Ryggen's work, the hues chosen here are more vibrant and jarring than for most of her works, which often seem to stay in a particular color family (consisting solely of shades or red, or shades of brown, for example). Art historian Marit Paasche, who calls this "one of Hannah Ryggen's most arresting works," notes that it is "the only one in which she used artificially dyed wool" rather than naturally dyed fibres, explaining the violent vibrancy of the tonal range.
It is also interesting to note the post-Cubist and collage-like aspects of this work. The human body appears as block-like and, in places, almost reduced to abstract pattern, while the different sections of the textile (the grass to the left and figure to the right) seem almost to be different images joined together in bricolage style. These aspects may reflect the influences Ryggen encountered in Paris in the mid-1940s.
Woven rug in wool and line - Bergen Art Museum, Bergen, Norway
Biography of Hannah Ryggen
Childhood and Education
Hanna Josefina Maria Jönsson was born into a working-class family in Malmö, Sweden in 1894. Her mother was a domestic servant and her father was a factory worker. Of her humble upbringing, Ryggen once stated, "my mother started to go out to work when she was eleven years old; my father started at Kockum's shipyard when he was fifteen years old. Work took up all their lives." Her parents were keen for Ryggen and her two siblings to achieve a good education and to learn the value of hard work. For Ryggen, this meant studying to become a teacher. At nineteen she began her first job, working in an elementary school in Gryt, Sweden. Around this time she added an "h" to the end of her first name although the reason for this is unknown.
Ryggen did not take to teaching. As art historian Marit Paasche explains "she was neither good with children nor adept at giving instruction." However, Paasche continues, "the teaching profession gave her economic independence, as well as offering long summer holidays." Nonetheless, after making several visits to a particular art exhibition in Malmö, Ryggen began to pluck up the courage to consider an alternative career and undertook an art course during her summer break. Excited by what she had learned Ryggen enrolled in several college courses when her teaching responsibilities began at the start of the next school year. Balancing her work demands, Ryggen studied intermittently for the next six years under German artist Fredrik Krebs receiving a classical training. She was especially drawn to the work of Rembrandt. Krebs also encouraged her to take a study trip to Dresden, Germany during the summer of 1922 so she could broaden her artistic knowledge by visiting and sketching in museums. On this trip Ryggen met her future husband, a Norwegian named Hans Ryggen, who was also studying art in Germany at the time.
Upon returning home from Germany Ryggen made two decisions that would shape the rest of her life. Firstly, she chose to continue her relationship with Hans, initially via letters from Sweden to Norway, her partner's home country. The pair eventually became engaged. Secondly, Ryggen, who until that point had worked primarily as a painter, switched to weaving. There is much speculation as to why. Certainly, Sweden had a vibrant tradition of folk arts and craft and this heritage may have inspired her. Moreover, in Dresden, she probably spent time with Hans's teacher, artist Otto Lange. As Paasche explains, "in addition to painting, Lange designed interiors and made textile samples and handicrafts....The possibility that he may have influenced Hannah's decision to switch from painting to weaving cannot be dismissed." Whatever the underlying reasons, Paasche continues, Ryggen "realized early on that she could express something in weaving that she could not in painting....The creative process involved in weaving was also-time consuming in quite a different way from painting. It required discipline, and that suited Hannah's temperament." Of her somewhat unexpected decision to shift medium the artist once stated: "suddenly there awoke in me a desire to do something with my hands. I could not paint like Krebs and still be myself. It suddenly occurred to me that I would weave pictures."
Ryggen initially struggled with the mechanics of weaving . It was not until Hans designed her a special loom, one that she could easily manipulate and control, that she began to excel in her artmaking. Looking back on this tough apprenticeship Ryggen described the loom as "an instrument of torture....I had to teach myself to weave. The warp was too narrow and I fussed and yanked at the threads and beams....And by the time I'd woven just four small tapestries, I was exhausted....Then I got to know Hans, and we moved to Norway. Hans is a creative genius. Everything I need, he invents, you know. He built me a loom - the world's greatest loom, which I could operate with my feet and work much more easily with. I have had it for twenty-three years and have woven all my large tapestries on it."
Ryggen married Hans in September of 1923 and continued to teach until he could establish a home for them in Norway. Hans came from a farming family and while he, as the eldest son, was supposed to take on management of the family's land he passed this responsibility on to his brother and instead purchased a small, manageable plot which would allow him and Hannah to work on their art while raising crops and livestock to support themselves. Ryggen joined her husband on their farm in Ørlandet, Norway in March of 1924. Two months later they welcomed their only child, a daughter they named Mona.
These early years of marriage were a period of adjustment for Hannah. Life on the farm was difficult. At first, the couple's home did not even have running water or electricity. They supplemented their income by selling Hans paintings, while Hannah taught locals how to dye fabrics. Of those first years on the farm, Ryggen stated, "we were struggling desperately to pay debts, feed and clothe ourselves, and for what we actually felt our lives were meant to be in this world...But life was good, we wore ourselves out....Life was rich, filled with work and beauty." Ryggen grew particularly close to the animals she and Hans kept, thinking of many of them as pets and struggling when they had to be sold. She depicted some of these animals in her artworks, such as her tapestry Yes, We Love (1950), which includes a goose of whom she was particularly fond. An earlier work, Us and Our Animals (1934), features several of the farm's animals alongside the artist and her family.
As well as providing subject-matter, living on a farm allowed Ryggen to work with nature to make her materials. When it came to dyeing her wool - which came from the sheep on her farm - Paasche explains that "the goal was to extract as many hues as possible from her natural surroundings ... gradually the attic of 'Rønnan' (as they dubbed their little house) was filled with dyed skeins of wool in countless shades created from goat willow bark, bird cherry, haircap moss, birch leaves, heather, common lichen, Scots pine bark..., and more. Every nuance of color corresponded to a specific entity in nature. Through the creation of color [Ryggen] took her immediate surroundings out into the greater world, and by her choice of subject matter, the world at large came closer to them. The wool and linen that she used were also pure product of her environment." Her favorite color, a particular shade of blue she referred to as "pot-blue," was perhaps the most complicated to make. She collected drunk men's urine and mixed this with materials such as orange peel and birch leaves, leaving the mixture to steep before using to turn the wool green and, finally, blue on exposure to air. Only then was the color right for use in her tapestries.
Despite the demands of her daily life Ryggen spent a large portion of her days making art. After Hans sold a portion of the farm to pay off debts income became a less pressing concern so Hannah was free to spend still more time weaving. This led to her first exhibition of tapestries, which were shown next to Hans's paintings at an exhibition in 1926. While life on the farm was somewhat isolated, Ryggen was very aware of world events and the effects of government actions on working people's lives. She was openly sympathetic to communism and tapestry-making proved an unlikely outlet for this sentiment. She began to weave complex narratives into her tapestries that visualized her views, resulting in highly political works addressing themes such as unfair working conditions and the rise of fascism. Contemporary political figures such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini even appeared in her works. This was highly original given the homely, rustic, and historically-minded connotations of her medium. As Paasche explains, "what is exceptional...and distinguishing about [Ryggen] is that she so explicitly uses the news and information as subject matter for her art. Unequivocally, and with full confidence in what art can achieve, she depicts international conflicts, and in so doing allows her political convictions and her denunciations full expression. She wished Mussolini dead, so she showed him being killed, skewered in Ethiopia (1935)....[She] believed Nazism had a stranglehold on the world, and consequently she wove Death of Dreams (1936) and 6 October 1942 (1943)."
The second half of the 1930s was a productive period for Ryggen. She created several large tapestries and began to gain a reputation beyond her home country, with several works appearing in prominent international shows. One of her tapestries was included in the Norwegian Pavilion of the World Fair in Paris in 1937 and was then shown in New York in 1939. Ryggen's family life, however, was less happy. She and her husband grew increasingly concerned about their daughter's health. In 1940 she began having seizures and it later became clear she was suffering from epilepsy. While the Ryggens were trying to raise money to travel with Mona to Copenhagen for treatment, the Nazis invaded Norway, putting an end to their plans.
The Nazis became a stifling presence in the Ryggen's lives, building an airbase in their village and housing many prisoners of war there. Seeing first-hand the mistreatment of these prisoners and the horrors of war, Ryggen began to create works about war and fascism, a theme that would sustain her practice after the war. She later said of this time that she and her family were "living on the edge of a grave." The worst part of the war was in May 1944, when the Nazis arrested and imprisoned Hans for resistance activities. Weaving was the only thing that stopped Hannah going mad; her tapestry, Grini (1945) presented a visualization of her time apart from her husband and her desire for his safe return.
To her relief, when the war ended, Ryggen was reunited with her husband. They returned to a form of normality, working on the farm and making art. They even managed a trip to Paris, and Hannah's work was shown in a 1946 exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in Copenhagen. While the folk tradition was strong in Norway, and weaving was a recognized art form, Ryggen pushed herself towards more modern themes and influences. She was interested in the art she had seen during her stay in Paris, including the work of Henri Matisse. She felt a particular kinship with Pablo Picasso, whom she would eventually depict in one of her tapestries. According to Paasche, Ryggen became "increasingly less interested in the spatial or three-dimensional aspect of a motif...the more she worked with weaving, the more she understood that it was the picture plan that had to be pursued." Later, Ryggen was even inspired by the Dada movement, including collage works by artists such as Hannah Höch. The weaver incorporated a collage style into later, large-scale works such as Trojan Horse / The Picasso Tapestry (1949-56).
The peace that Ryggen, Hans and her daughter found after the rough years of the war was short lived. Hans was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1953 and succumbed to the illness three years later, in December 1956. Overcome with grief, Ryggen left the farm and moved to Trondheim, where she set up a studio. Artmaking proved to be Ryggen's one true comfort after Hans's death, though her sorrow manifested itself in her 1958 tapestry, We Are Living on a Star, which depicts their love.
The other themes she could not abandon, even later in her career, were those of politics and social injustice. After the war Ryggen continued to use her tapestries as vehicles for political statements, addressing subjects as varied as the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and the Vietnam War. Her reputation as an artist also continued to grow, with accolades including a large retrospective in her native Sweden in 1962 and her selection to represent Norway at the Venice Biennale in 1964.
In line with her strong views on social justice, Ryggen firmly believed that her art should be for everyone, not just for the rich. She sought whenever she could to display her works to the public at large. As Paasche explains, "many of Hannah Ryggen's works functioned as condemnations of injustices suffered by specific individuals and groups. To be effective, they had to be viewed in a public setting....Ryggen felt that making 'politically-oriented art for the rich' was an absurd concept, and that if she had lived in a worker-governed state her 'tapestries would decorate schools and meeting halls'. Her concern was to reach the general public." In expression of this belief, she gifted seven tapestries to Norway's Museum of Decorative Arts in 1965.
Ryggen was fortunate enough to recognize the trailblazing aspects of her art in her own lifetime. At the same time, she knew that she might still be pigeonholed though her connections to perceived folk-art traditions. Of this, Ryggen once stated, "But do you know that I am the only weaving artist in the world, the very beginning of woven art. I feel like someone on a desert island. I'm sure some people will try to strangle me when they begin to understand what these tapestries are actually about. Corruption and cliques are everywhere. Painters are becoming anxious about having me in an exhibition because I steal all the attention and the good critique from them. I am relegated to and eternally lost in the applied arts museums and I will not end up there. I am a free artist." Continuing to work until the end, Ryggen died in 1970 at the age of seventy-five.
The Legacy of Hannah Ryggen
The legacy of Hannah Ryggen's work is manifold. Through her chosen medium of weaving she helped to expand the definition of modern art. Defying the often held misconceptions of critics that materials such as ceramics, fabrics, and thread are better suited to "craft" than to fine art, Ryggen helped to elevate tapestry to the status of a true modernist artform. According to art historian Marit Paasche, "that Hannah Ryggen considered weaving and using vegetable dyes to be the most fitting vehicles of artistic expression to convey something essential about both her own life and the character of European society from 1930 to 1970 is in itself deeply fascinating." Today we can recognize the influence of Ryggen's work on several generations of modernist and experimental textile artists, including important figures such as Cecilia Vicuña, Sheila Hicks, and Magdalena Abakanowicz.
Simultaneously, Ryggen brought Norwegian art to a broader, more international audience. Paasche again: "her art emerged in a formative period for Norwegian society and its welfare state: from the desperation of the 1930s and acute class struggle, through the German occupation, to the establishment of the Norwegian consensus-based social democracy. Thus her art is also a part of modern Europe."
Equally important, through her tapestries Ryggen made strong statements about the politics of the day, social injustices, and gender inequalities. This allowed her art to serve as a chronicle of world events during the second half of the twentieth century. As Paasche explains, "the concept of the independent free individual is central in Hannah Ryggen's art, yet it is also an integral part of the fabric of society and the natural world. Ryggen's work combines idealism - faith that the world can be a better place - with a belief in the function and value of art as both idea and action, and as a 'moveable mural.' Her tapestries can be admired for the power of their beauty, but they can also be borne like banners. Hannah Ryggen understood well how to weave the political into a monumental format that was bound neither to a specific place nor an architectonic framework."
Influences and Connections
- Paul Cézanne
- Oskar Kokoschka
- Jean Heiberg
- Georg Jacobsen
- Otto Lange
- Ernst Fischer
- Gotthard Johansson
- Folk Art
- Fabric arts
- Lysaker Circle
- Reidar Aulie
- Jean Heiberg
- Georg Jacobsen
- Henrik Sørensen
- Cecilia Vicuña
- Ernst Fischer
- Gotthard Johansson
- Modernism and Modern Art
- Folk Art
- Fabric arts