As if to emphasize the untimeliness of her decision, Swedish-Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen gave up academic painting for tapestry at a time when the arts and crafts movement was slowly disappearing from the international art scene. Entirely self-taught, she completed her first works in 1922 and continued to work with the medium throughout World War II. Although her experiments in freehand technique turned Norwegian weaving into a subjective, imaginative art form and made her one of the most original artists of her generation, she has seldom been acknowledged as such. A group exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo based on her work and influence, ‘The Human Pattern’, revealed Ryggen’s originality and international significance by juxtaposing eight of her large-scale tapestries with works by artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso, Gunnar S. Gundersen, Charlotte Johannesson and Claude Cahun.
True to the methods of the European tapestry tradition, Ryggen used weaving as a means of chronicling contemporary events. But she also employed the medium as a gesture of political analysis and protest. Through allegorical tableaux like En Fri (A Free One, 1947), she addressed the struggle for freedom of particular social classes. En Fri depicts a complex system of familial bonds and labour relations, showing the figures of aristocrats and exploited workers seeming to emerge from a patterned, decorative ground. Ryggen also filtered contemporary political events through the fates of individuals, like the German Communist resistance fighter in Lise Lotte Hermann Halshuggen (Lise Lotte Hermann Executed, 1938). The work’s simple composition consists of clearly defined colour fields denoting a sequence of events: in Hermann’s case, the murder of her husband by the Gestapo, her imprisonment for high treason and her eventual execution.
Ryggen exploited the handmade nature and meticulous labour of tapestry as a metaphor for the dialectics of political domination and liberation: she turned the focus of her work toward art itself as a labour which is materially bound to class struggle, yet which also demonstrates a potential for advancing towards freedom through the synthesis of work, political activism and imaginative expression. She worked against the grain of post-Duchampian tendencies where readymade, mechanical and abstract strategies were increasingly abolishing the artist-subject – and, along with it, the very conception of art as labour, prone to be more or less alienated.
The exhibition attempted to highlight this by juxtaposing Ryggen’s practices with others, including artists directly inspired by or thematically linked to her, as well as those working with art forms she had rejected – namely, the canon of Norwegian abstract Modernism. Yet the very diversity of political themes and approaches partly hindered a more compelling discussion of the relevance of Ryggen’s works for the future of the image. Notwithstanding, the critical potential and political agency of images in modern visual culture is at stake in many works, from Cahun’s photographic critique of gender concepts (five untitled self portraits, 1928–45) to Charlotte Johannesson’s Massoud (1983). Here Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan resistance fighter against the Soviet occupation, is iconically rendered in a Che Guevara-like heroic posture, which inconclusively sparkles and fades out of a computerized design. The pixelated language almost melancholically longs for activism. A poster by Ruth Ewan simply stated ‘Justice and truth shall conquer the tyrants of the earth’ against a red background (quoting a poem by Gustav Spiller). The neighbouring green poster presented a simple drawing of a spinning wheel (Unrecorded Future, Tell Us What Broods There, 2008).
While the works by other artists at times pointed too didactically to specific formal aspects of Ryggen’s tapestries, and the exhibition as a whole became a somewhat hazy field of diverging political discourses, ‘The Human Pattern’ succeeded in demonstrating how Ryggen, by incorporating a political conception of the creative act into her tapestry, radically reacted to international tendencies. The exhibition indirectly questioned the ideologically coloured, historically shifting nature of the very concept of the ‘retrospective’ itself, and made Ryggen’s crude rendering of events from the rise of fascism stand out not primarily as a rejection of Modernist anti-representation or alternative formal strategies, but as a liberating, material interrogation of art’s continued potential and necessity to act politically.