Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories
Modern Art Oxford
11 November 2017 - 18 February 2018
Review by Rowland Bagnall
With the recent news that French president Emmanuel Macron has agreed to a loan of the Bayeux Tapestry to Great Britain at some point in the near future – marking its first departure from France in nearly a millennium – I find myself considering how tapestries seem able to offer themselves in several different modes at once. Most immediately, of course, they are lavish decorative objects, often staggering in their intricacy, but they also tend to act as rudimentary narrative storyboards, as social and historical records, and frequently as self-conscious moral or political commentaries. The delicate tensions that occur when tapestries are teased in multiple directions like this seem to be at the heart of Hannah Ryggen’s work, currently on display at Modern Art Oxford in the UK’s first major exhibition of the pioneering Norwegian textile artist.
In 1923, having trained as a painter for several years, Ryggen taught herself to weave on a home-made loom, using yarn she spun and dyed herself, extracting earth tones from the organic materials available to her in Ørlandet, the remote coastal region of Norway where she lived with her husband and daughter. Although she regularly attracted the attention of gallerists and museum directors across Scandinavia, Ryggen intended her work to operate as a series of accessible public statements. A dedicated member of the Norwegian Communist Party, her tapestries critically addressed a wide-ranging set of social and political subjects – from Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 to the American involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s – many of which reached her through the left-leaning publication, Dagbladet.
After a while, the essential contradiction of Ryggen’s tapestries reveals itself. A natural consequence of the loom’s technique, the scenes she represents arrange themselves within a complicated network of vertical and horizontal lines, dividing the picture into hard-edged, angular plains of solid colour, at odds with the essential softness and tactility of the wool from which they’re made. Ryggen seems attuned to this inherent conflict, developing geometric patterns that surround and enclose her figures. As such, we encounter a recurrent theme of imprisonment in her work – both physical and ideological – most strongly felt in her response to the events of the Second World War.
Ryggen’s handling of history fuses the local to the international, the personal to the political, the real to the imagined. In 6 October 1942 (1943), which was included as part of a 2017 exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, surveying the development of textile art since the 1940s, Ryggen records the execution of prominent public figures from her region during the Nazi occupation of Norway. Hitler is represented as the picture’s surreal executioner, flying awkwardly in from stage left, whilst Ryggen and her family bear witness from a laden boat; the scene is completed by a stoic Winston Churchill, staring outwards at the viewer from the safety of a solemn tower.
The gallery is dimly lit in order to protect the artworks’ natural dyes. With the additional presence of dehumidifiers and air-conditioning units, tucked discreetly in the corners of the rooms, the delicacy of Ryggen’s tapestries is unintentionally emphasized. Subject to a slow, inevitable process of deterioration as the dyes begin to fade and the wool wears gradually thinner, the physical properties of Ryggen’s tapestries appear once again to comment upon themselves, as if the histories they represent are in danger of being faded, altered, and unwoven slowly over time.
Six years before her death in 1970, Ryggen became the first female artist to represent Norway at the Venice Biennale, and, in more recent years, has been the subject of several important retrospectives. As the relationship between politics and the public continues to find its twenty-first century feet, the uncompromising boldness of Ryggen’s tapestries and their gentle interrogation of questions concerning nationality, identity, inequality and storytelling seem all too strangely close to home.