Why Hannah Ryggen, largely written out of art history following her death in 1970, has undergone such a remarkable revival over the past decade might be put down to several factors: her powerful graphic sensibility, the choice of tapestry as her medium and her fearless engagement with the dark times in which she lived, which have powerful resonances with our own.
Born in Sweden, Ryggen studied painting at night school, moving with her husband, the Norwegian artist Hans Ryggen, to a remote farm in Norway in 1924. They lived without running water or electricity, subsisting on produce they grew themselves. Hans built Hannah a loom, on which she taught herself to weave – without preparatory drawings – the images she saw in her mind’s eye. She dyed wool using local lichens, leaves and berries, mixed with fermented urine (visitors were encouraged to leave a sample), making her work, as she said in an interview shortly before her death, ‘200% Norwegian’.
This setting is writ large in the first room of the exhibition. We and Our Animals (1934) shows three scenes from life on the smallholding, in the manner of a medieval triptych: on the left Hannah stands barefoot in the yard feeding chickens; on the right Hans holds a carthorse by its bridle; in the centre the family in their best clothes sit around a table. Yet there is horror at the heart of this utopia: a decapitated chicken flaps its wings, its head falling, along with a knife, from Hans’s lap. Other body parts lie beneath the table; Hannah covers her face with one hand while the other pours blood from a bowl onto the floor. The medium itself, with its play of warp and weft, horizontal and vertical, shapes the world she depicts. Perspective is flattened, the scattered grain falls in a geometric pattern and the birds that cluster around her feet look angular, mechanical.
Adept at expressing inner turmoil, Ryggen was also fluent in pure political rage. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia galvanized her first response to events outside Norway. Her 12.5-foot-long tapestry Ethiopia (1935) was shown in the Norwegian Pavilion of the Paris World’s Fair in 1937; Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was exhibited in the neighbouring Spanish Pavilion. Above an abstract design in untreated brown and white wool she presented an African woman, a white diplomat and Emperor Haile Selassie resplendent in ceremonial robes. In the top right corner an Ethiopian warrior lifts aloft a square, decapitated head in a military cap, demonstrating, as Ryggen put it, ‘my will to nail Mussolini with a black man’s spear!’ Unlike Guernica, Ryggen’s work was censored: the organizers folded over the part depicting Mussolini’s demise. The Nazi occupation of Norway and even Hans’s incarceration in a prison camp did not soften her position; she even hung tapestries outside her house where they could be seen by Nazi soldiers. In 6 October 1942 (1943) Hitler is depicted flying through the air, discharging pistols, propelled by oak leaves coming from his arse. Ryggen’s satirical bite remained sharp after the war, with bankers, corrupt politicians and those responsible for nuclear proliferation all on the receiving end.
Her work is saved from becoming social realist agitprop by its emotional depth. Mother’s Heart (1947) depicts her daughter who suffered from epilepsy – a little-understood condition at the time. Gossiping neighbours cluster in the centre of the composition; baby Mona casually dangles two entwined hearts while her mother staggers under the weight of another massive heart that encloses her head. It is the small, naked figure at the foot of the tapestry that tells us all we need to know about Ryggen and why she still speaks to us so powerfully today: mouth open in anguish she looks up, pressing her hand to her left breast where the skin glows red with heat, generated by the turbo-charged heart within.
Hannah Ryggen at Modern Art Oxford runs until 18 February 2018.
Main image: Hannah Ryggen, 6 October 1942 / 6. Oktober 1942, 1943. Courtesy: Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum / Museene I Sør-Trøndelag, Trondheim, Norway; photograph: Anders S. Solberg/Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum, Trondheim. © Hannah Ryggen / DACS