Hannah Ryggen (*1894 in Malmö, Sweden, †1970 in Trondheim, Norway), originally trained as a painter, but early on discovered the woven tapestry as an art form for her social and political engagement. Among her most important exhibitions during her lifetime are the solo show at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1962), and the Venice Biennial (1964).
Art versus War and Oppression
»I am a painter, not a weaver; a painter whose tool is not the brush, but the loom.« (Hannah Ryggen)
When Picasso’s Guernica was first shown to an international audience at the Paris Expo in 1937, his famous painting hung in immediate proximity to Hannah Ryggen’s tapestry Etiopia(Ethiopia). Picasso’s monumental canvas was a protest against the German-Italian air attack on the Basque city in 1937, as well as a commemoration. Ryggen’s work is an artistic outcry against Benito Mussolini’s ferocious field campaign against the Ethiopian Empire in October 1935. Whereas Picasso was commissioned by Spain’s Republican government to create the painting, Ryggen’s tapestry was made to satisfy a deeply personal need to react to the invasion, according to Marta Kuzma in her Notebook about the dOCUMENTA (13) artist.
Etiopia is the first of a series of works reflecting Ryggen’s social and political engagement. Through her woven tapestries she commented on the rise of fascism and National Socialism in between the wars, as well as politics in Norway in the post-war era; in the process she created an impressive compendium of more than fifty pieces of dedicated art. For example, the work Hitlerteppet (The Hitler Tapestry) was created in 1936, and it pilloried the cruelties of the Nazi regime, as well as the Church’s entanglement in National Socialism. That same year Drømmedød (Death of Dreams) appeared. In this work the artist drew attention to the Nazis’ imprisonment of the German journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky, while criticizing the complicity of Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, who took a position supporting Ossietszky’s condemnation. In 1956 Ryggen completed a tapestry called Jul Kvale, in which she supported the committed workers of the Communist Party in Norway, who spoke out vehemently against their country’s decision to join NATO.
A story about one of Ryggen’s special forms of protest in her Norwegian homeland has been handed down. During the German occupation of the country—up to seven thousand German soldiers were stationed in Ørland during the Second World War—the artist hung her critical tapestries on a laundry line next to her house, where they were very visible. In 1924 Ryggen and her husband had moved to a small farmhouse in Ørland, “the adventure of our lives,” as the artist herself wrote. Prior to that, but after working as a teacher, she had received a thorough academic education in painting. Despite their remote location, she and her husband, the painter Hans Ryggen, attentively followed the developments of the European avant-garde. Furthermore, the artist—a pacifist and an avowed reader of political writings—was active in the Norwegian communist party in the 1930s and was an early advocate of feminist ideas.
Soon after completing her artistic education, the artist felt the “urgent desire to make something by hand,” and taught herself how to weave. Ryggen pursued weaving with the seriousness of an artist. “I am a painter, not a weaver; a painter whose tool is not the brush, but the loom.”
In 1962 the Moderna Museet in Stockholm produced a solo show of Ryggen’s works, which was very successful with both experts and the general public. Just two years later the artist represented Norway at the Venice Biennial. Nevertheless, her work remained unknown to a broader audience, and to this day she is still not an established figure in the Modernist canon, even in Norwegian art history. Increasingly, though, the expressive works of Hannah Ryggen—which she wove right on the loom, without making any preliminary sketches, using hand-spun, plant-dyed wool—are drawing the attention of the contemporary art world. In 2011 two exhibitions in Oslo were devoted to her oeuvre, and in 2012 a selection of her impressive woven works of art can be discovered at the 2012 dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel.
June 8, 2012 Stefanie Gommel