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
“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.