Interview: Curator Marit Paasche on Scandinavian textile artist Hannah Ryggen

Hannah Ryggen, 1958. Photograph: Klaus Forbregd/NTNU University Library

The Swedish-born Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) was responsible for some of the most daring, radical textile art created in the twentieth century. Ryggen’s life and work were strikingly atypical: a self-taught weaver and committed communist living on a remote, self-sufficient farm in Norway, Ryggen rejected the art market in order to create public art that critiqued the patriarchal, capitalist world order. Her tapestries offer radical responses to the trauma and chaos of modernity, whilst also exploring new ways of living in, and with, the world. Ryggen allows the brutality of the twentieth century to burst through her tapestries’ angular patterns and flat colour fields, raising questions about the politics of modernism and the purpose of art in a troubled world.

Many of Ryggen’s tapestries represents the destruction wrought by fascism and war, but her materials and methods offer the hope of renewal and reconstruction. She dyed wool shorn from local sheep with dye and, by creating every dye by hand, using flora and fauna gathered from around her home, Ryggen quite literally wove the Norwegian landscape into her tapestries. Her commitment to organic methods was such that she would even invite her houseguests to pee in a bucket, as one of her favourite colours, ‘pot blue’, was made using fermented urine! Her work anticipates eco-feminist arguments that urge us to, in Lori Gruen’s words, ‘revalue nature’ and deconstruct the hierarchical dualisms between nature and culture, men and women, human and non-human. Ryggen’s legacy is a modern, feminist art that eschews patriarchal capitalist structures and the masculine, destructive violence of fascism and chemical warfare; instead, she offers us a (much needed) alternative vision of life and creativity. 

As the curator of several exhibitions of Ryggen’s work and author of artist biography Hannah Ryggen: Threads of Defiance, which will be published by Thames and Hudson and University of Chicago Press next month, curator Marit Paasche is responsible for much of the revival of interest in Ryggen. I caught up with Marit to discuss Ryggen’s art, politics, and connection to the Norwegian landscape…

How did you first encounter Ryggen and what drew you to her work?

I grew up in Trondheim, a city in the middle of Norway which also possesses the biggest collection of Hannah Ryggen’s works ( at Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum). So, I saw her works there for the first time when I was around twelve. Many years later, in 2009, I was reminded of her tapestries by some students and a colleague of mine at the Art Academy in Oslo, and I went to see them again. This time, Ryggen’s tapestries nearly knocked the wind out of me. It was obvious that her work was distinctive, by both national and international standards and they had this rare quality of being both personal and political, in a very explicit, yet original way.  

Seven years later, I published, Hannah Ryggen. En fri, as it is titled in Norwegian (published as Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance in English in September). During this same period I also curated several exhibitions in which her work was represented alongside both contemporary and older art. These exhibitions, and the attention they received, proved to me that Ryggen’s art is relevant to our time and to contemporary art. But why have her works begun to breathe again? To answer this question, I believe it is important to understand the circumstances in which her art was made. That is why I set out to uncover and write about the origination of Ryggen’s artworks– how they related to their own age, to lived life and to the ideas and trends of their era. For Hannah Ryggen, life, art, work and politics were one, and her sensitivity to connections between people, places, politics and social conditions are manifested in her weaving and in the vast body of written material she left behind. 

Ryggen was such an unusual and unconventional figure, in terms of her life and her art. How do you think she understood her place in both the art world and the wider socio-political world?

This is a very interesting subject because she clearly understood herself as a citizen of the world, even if she lived on this remote coastal area in the middle of Norway, and she also had this enormous confidence in art; with art she was capable of saying anything. Her way of relating to art felt very liberating for me. She also strongly believed in the impact of raising one’s voice and when you think of it; politics is always focused on the future, where its consequences lay. When she made her tapestries in protest against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (1935); of Hitler’s increasingly inhumane way of governing (1936) or the role of USA in the Vietnam war (1966), it was as a statement to the future. Hannah Ryggen’s artistic legacy reminds us that art is a part of public life and inextricably bound to politics. 

6 October 1942/ 6. Oktober 1942 (detail; 1943), Hannah Ryggen. Photo: Anders S. Solberg/Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum. © Hannah Ryggen / DACS 2017. Courtesy Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag.

Why was the Norwegian landscape so important to Ryggen?

Norway doesn’t have a long tradition of painting, but it does have a very long tradition of weaving. When Hannah Ryggen arrived in Norway in 1924, she had already decided to quit painting and start weaving instead. It took her a decade to master the medium, and when I say master, I mean composition (often with respect to an outsized scale), carding, spinning, weaving techniques and, not least, making dyes from plants. It is also worth mentioning that she didn’t use any sketches or cartoons, but wove guided solely by an “inner image” ––she treated the warp like a canvas.  

Extracting colors from the natural terrain that surrounded her and controlling the sophisticated chemical processes that rendered the colors stable over time was the result of laborious experimentation, and after a while Ryggen came to know the land by heart and also how to extract colors from it. So although we rarely find the Norwegian landscape depicted, it is present in the very material; the linen, the wool and the great variation of natural dyes. Once she had this knowledge at her fingertips, she felt free to express herself.   

You could say Hannah Ryggen brought all of her painter’s knowledge and political fervor to bear in her weaving, but also a pictorial language partly derived from folk art.Also, the other (male) artists of the 1930s and 1940s acknowledged her talent and treated her as an equal. This made it possible for her to establish herself as one of the most renowned artists of her time in Scandinavia. 

Ryggen’s communist beliefs and self-sufficient lifestyle are so interesting in the context of the crises we face today – the climate catastrophe, rising fascism, and a widening gap between the super-wealthy and the poor. What can her work teach a contemporary audience? 

Throughout her career as an artist, Hannah Ryggen actively used her works as statements to society. She never considered the task of responding to events occurring around her to be anyone else’s obligation; she shouldered this responsibility herself. She took stock of her own life, and questioned generally held views about the role of women in society, poverty, economic injustice and inequality, and international conflicts caused by the rise Fascism in Europe.

Together with Will Bradley, I curated an exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo in 2011, with six of Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries alongside works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Cahun and other more contemporary artists like Ann Cathrin November Høibo and Ruth Ewan. On the 22 July, just a few weeks after the show closed, the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, detonated a car bomb just in front of the Highrise building in the governmental quarter, killing eight people. He then drove to the island of Utøya, about an hour outside of Oslo, where, dressed as a policeman, he shot and killed sixty-nine people at the summer camp of the Labour Party’s youth organization, most of them teenagers. This was a traumatizing shock to all Norwegians. We were suddenly reminded of the consequences of normalizing racist thoughts and ideas in public. 

One of Hannah Ryggen’s most iconic works, We are Living on a Star (1958), hung in the main entrance hall the of the Highrise, close to the blast. But the tapestry withstood the explosion because it is so pliant and relatively light, it only received a gash in the lower right corner, which conservators have now repaired. That this tapestry, which so powerfully proclaims faith in love as a personal and political force, should be struck in the first major attack on Norwegian society since the Second World War is now manifested by a trace, a visible scar in the bottom right corner. The scar is a reminder that no political struggle is ever concluded; they must be fought again and again.

Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Are Living on a Star), 1958, textiles, 4 × 3 m,  Courtesy: Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag, Trondheim, Norway

There is a huge revival in women artists, and, particularly, textile art, at the moment – as well as Ryggen, I’m thinking of recent exhibitions of artists such as Dorothea Tanning, Anni Albers, Frida Kahlo, and Faith Ringgold – why do you think this is and how do we stop it being simply a passing trend?

I think it is quite interesting to see that we have had a period of revitalized interest in ‘female’ artists.  Embracing the idea of the under-recognized female artist has become a popular international trend in recent years and I support this work because it is a correction of an extremely male-dominated account of modernism. I think we have just reached a period in history where it is no longer possible to ignore the work of so many extremely talented female artists. 

When I was working on Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance I came across a poem by the Irish poet Eavan Boland called ‘A Woman Painted on a Leaf’. It describes her longing for poems that have no beautiful young women in them. She writes: ‘I want a poem I can grow old in / I want a poem I can die in.’ Those lines hit me, and I think Hannah Ryggen’s work triggered in me a similar longing—for a different kind of art history. The sum of my research and work in diverse areas of contemporary art has taught me that there is so much great art that does not fit into an art history dominated by canons. So, to paraphrase Boland: I was longing for an art history I could live in: an art history with enough space to contain life and all the hard work, strange experiments and coincidences we know are the basis of all art. 

As to how we prevent the newly found interest in female artist from being merely a trend, I would respond: By looking closely at what public and private institutions acquire, and how female artists are represented in the collections. If they are not well represented, then it is our responsibility to make it heard, again and again. My other concern is how we write art history. This is of course closely connected to collections and to exhibition-practice, but we need to make art and art history an important issue for all citizens, not just leave it to the marginal field of academics. We need to find new ways of writing art history. This is what I have tried to do in Hannah Ryggen. Threads of Defiance.

Ryggen doesn’t easily fit the ‘marginalised woman artist’ narrative, and, in her lifetime, she was reluctant to engage with the art market. In your opinion, how do we respect and do justice to the legacy of this sort of artist (I’m particularly thinking of the commercialisation and fetishisation of Kahlo, also a communist artist)?

No, the ‘marginalised woman artist narrative’ cannot be applied to Hannah Ryggen, and it is interesting to note how, in lifting female artists out of obscurity and focusing attention on their greatness, we almost automatically assume that these women – be it Carol Rama or Hilma af Klint – were marginalized or overlooked in their own time. In many ways, “forgotten” has come to mean “marginalized”. Initially, I made the same assumption myself about Hannah Ryggen. But when I sat down and went through the archival material, I was proven wrong. As opposed to many of her female artist-colleagues, Ryggen was proclaimed a genius by a number of art critics—mostly male—in the 1930s; she exhibited on a regular basis internationally, and her success was indisputable. 

Another very important aspect of her oeuvre was, as you mention, her reluctance to engage with the art market. When she first came toØrlandet, Hannah Ryggen made and sold craft items as a source of income, but she stopped doing so around 1933. Meanwhile, the large-scale weavings were extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, and her art was for a long time an economic drain on the family. During the 14 years from 1926 to 1940 Ryggen earned merely 3000 Norwegian crowns from her tapestries, just a little more than the annual average salary. And yet, despite extremely difficult means, Ryggen never compromised: not only did she give up making and selling crafts, she also more or less refused to sell her monumental weavings to private buyers. She wanted her works to be public statements, and for that reason felt that they should be publicly owned and hang where all citizens had access to them. And because of this, most of her major works are in public collections in Norway and Sweden today, which makes the art works available on a completely different level than works owned by private collectors.  

When you try to make an artist known there is always an element of commercializing involved and it is difficult to balance the need for attention and the message presented. I have tried to make visible all the myth-making related to Hannah Ryggen ––she was responsible for some of it herself too–– and also to avoid all kinds of exotification, simplifications and attempts at heroic storytelling. 

Hannah Ryggen: Woven Manifestos is at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt from 26 September – 12 January 2020.

Interview by Lottie Whalen

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