Hannah Ryggen is a Norwegian weaver who made amazing political tapestries. I had never heard of her until I started talking about craftivism to a museum curator in Oslo, who then introduced me to her work. That’s one of the things I love most about craft, there’s always something or someone new to discover, uncover, and learn about!
Born in 1894 in Sweden, Hannah Ryggen moved to Ørland, Norway, in 1924 where she lived most of her life until her death in 1970. Originally trained as a painter, Ryggen adopted weaving and tapestry as a medium to reflect her social and political engagement. Among her most important exhibitions are a solo exhibition at Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1962), and participation within the Nordic Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia (1964).
The story of Hannah Ryggen is far from the classic tale of the contemporary artist born and trained in the big city, the fulcrum and hotbed of the edgiest scene. Instead, it is that of a leftist, pacifist woman, in love with nature, who lived on a farm far away from it all, on a Norwegian fjord, where she wove tapestries. These large works combine abstraction and figure, and not only address timely topics of the day—the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italians, for example—but also express dissent—regarding the execution of the communist Herrmann, or the war in Vietnam—or admiration for those who refuse to be swayed by questionable positions.
Ryggen’s political commitment is demonstrated in tapestries dedicated to the executed German communist dissident Liselotte Herrmann (Lise Lotte Hermann halshuggen, 1938) and to the imprisoned left-wing humanist campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Carl von Ossietzky (Drømmedød, 1936). Equally, these works underline Ryggen’s belief in the importance of individual agency in the historical struggle. Her 1948 weaving En Fri (sometimes translated as ‘Freedom’, but more literally and more appropriately, ‘A Free One’) depicts aristocratic figures on pedestals surrounded by the half-seen grey faces of hammer-wielding workers, the whole composition tied together by a geometric golden band. In a short poem-like text describing the work, Ryggen writes: ‘The human pattern—we all are trapped in / some grey figures bend their backs and work while we sleep / some wear medals and stand above us all / hand in hand with their ancestors…’ But there is one figure, on the lower right of the weaving, who is not caught up in the golden band. ‘One of the grey figures stands up and looks at it all. He is as free as one can be.’
“I am a painter, not a weaver; a painter whose tool is not the brush, but the loom.”
A self-taught weaver, spinning and colouring her own yarn with plant-based dyes, Ryggen created works that came to be characterized as ‘Tendency Art’ – art with socio-political and critical contents. With the medium of weaving, she commented on Fascism and Nazism’s emergence in Europe in the inter-war years, and Norwegian politics in the post-war years.
Ryggen never drew preliminary designs before beginning to weave; she was experimental, but had a clear idea of how the end result should look. Most of her pictorial weavings are characterized by an explicit social and political protest that is executed in a daring, original and personal style.
No one followed directly in her footsteps, yet she is considered important, not least because she was the first Norwegian textile artist to be accepted as a bonafide pictorial artist. Her works, moreover, were purchased by Norway’s National Gallery and were, in 1964, the first textiles to be included in the Autumn Exhibition – a prestigious, juried event.
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.
Apr 17th, 2014
This past Tuesday I learned how to not be scared of my sewing machine thanks to an Intro to Sewing course at Bits of Thread here in DC.
It was so momentous that I literally had the following clip from What About Bob in my head:
I have slugged my grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine to my various apartments for over a decade now, yet been so scared of using it that I had only actually tried it out once or twice. I had literally become a Luddite, as I kept saying things like “it’s too fast” or “I can’t handle all those moving parts” whenever talk of me actually using it came up in conversation, as not only do I have it, but it sits permanently in my living room (it’s built-in to a table).
So, I decided to face my crafty fear and go for it. Here are the results:
Ahoy! Now how I know how Bob felt in that clip and feel so triumphant for having mastered my fear of the moving needle!
Curious, do you have any crafty fears? And if so, have you mastered them?
First of all, you may be wondering, what is a woman riding a camel in the Khyber Pass doing on a post about craftivism? Well, it’s totally related once you realize that that woman on that camel is Louisa Pesel, who helped shell-shocked soldiers and passed out cross-stitch/embroidery kits (some resources say one, some the other) to POWs with the Red Cross.
I’ve searched high and low on the internet for more information than provided below, but it’s sparse. If anyone has any more information, I’d love to hear it! While this week’s entry may be a bit sparse, I hope it helps someone learn about the fabulous work on this amazing woman.
Louisa Pesel is a special hero of mine. Many years ago I fell in love with her notebooks and her meticulously hand drawn charted designs of antique needlework. She was saying, ‘Just look at this, isn’t this design wonderful?’ Having travelled to many countries in the near East, she wanted all the world to see what she, by her good fortune, had seen. I think it is so important to keep alight the torch she lit. The more so, perhaps, since she was an old girl of my school in Bradford. How strange to think that the school founded in 1875 and something of a scandal since it proposed to teach girls mathematics and classics instead of the usual domestic arts, should have been, in its turn, slightly astonished to turn out a scholar with a passion for design and needlework.
Born in Bradford, Louisa Frances Pesel (1870-1947) was a teacher of embroidery. She studied design under the Arts & Crafts practitioner Lewis Foreman Day, who recommended her for the post of Designer at the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Laces in Athens, where she soon became its Director. After returning to England, Pesel worked with shell-shocked soldiers in Bradford, and was involved in establishing embroidery kits for POWs (Prisoners of War) during the Second World War.
More than 90 years ago, in the final year of the First World War, steam trains daily brought injured soldiers into Bradford for hospital treatment.
Among these hospitals was the 437-bed Abram Peel Hospital in Leeds Road, a military establishment for neurological disorders, staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and volunteers.
A club was formed to help them, the Bradford Khaki Club, based in Forster Square.
Khaki Club members were also taught embroidery by Louisa Pesel, the Bradford-born daughter of a German merchant. She was in her 40s, a noted scholar and embroidery expert who had been director of the Royal Helenic School of Needlework and Laces in Athens.
She helped some of them to embroider what is known as the Khaki Cloth, a cross-stitch frontlet made at the club in the autumn of 1918 for use at services in the Abram Peel Hospital.
The Bradford Khaki Club was formed in the First World War to help the many shell shocked and injured soldiers brought home for hospital treatment. It had a restaurant, games room, library and held concert parties, members were also taught to embroider by Louisa Pesel (first President of the “Embroiderers Guild of Needlework”), some of whom helped embroider what is known as the “Khaki Cloth”, a cross-stitch frontlet made in 1918 and used at services in the “Abram Peel Hospital” in Leeds Road a Military establishment staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
From 1941 to 1947: Pesel was involved in sending craft kits out to POWS in Red Cross parcels. She also taught sewing to evacuated school girls in Winchester.
Along with all of this amazing work, she was also world traveled and master embroiderer.
The Pesel Collection of Collected and Created works, bequeathed to the University of Leeds in 1947, consists of a total of over 400 embroidered items, ranging in size, stitching and provenance. The majority are of Turkish and Greek island origin, others emanate from Morocco, Algeria, Turkestan, India, Pakistan, Persia, Syria, China, and Western Europe. The collection also includes Louisa Pesel’s own pieces and samples, including her ‘models’ for Winchester Cathedral, and also an archival collection of her notebooks, photographs, articles and drawings*. Many of her publications are available to view in Leeds University Library.
One of the founders of the Khaki Club was Louisa Pesel, a relatively well to do 46 year old woman, whose war efforts also included assisting Belgian refugees and raising money to provide ambulances for use at the Front. She was also an expert embroiderer, and used this as therapy for the soldiers.
Apr 11th, 2014
I took this photo of Bobbin the other week and to me it pretty much embodies what, to me, is essential for “home,” a furry one and some handmade items. Every time I see her curled up with this pillow it reminds me how much I love my grandmother, who made it. As she gets older she likes to give away her things, and once when I was visiting her at her retirement home, she tucked this under my arm without warning and said, “I want you to have this.”
Store-bought pillows just don’t hold the same resonance, depth, and warmth. As lovers of things handmade, I think we are lucky to appreciate the work that goes into them, as they hold traces not just of the hands that made them, but of the people themselves.