The woman who kept Hitler and Churchill in stitches: Hannah Ryggen Woven Histories review
Source:theguardian Author:Skye Sherwin Date: 2017-11-17 Size:
On a wind-blown farm on a remote Norwegian shore, with no running water or electricity ……

Political point … detail from Hannah Ryggen’s 6 October 1942 (1943), featuring a bullish Winston Churchill.Photograph: Courtesy Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum/© Hannah Ryggen/DACS 2017

On a wind-blown farm on a remote Norwegian shore, with no running water or electricity, Hannah Ryggen worked utterly from scratch on her anti-fascist tapestries. Spinning wool from her sheep, she dyed it with things she’d found by foraging: birch leaves, bark moss and bog rosemary. Urine, too, was an essential part of this alchemical process, and visitors were asked to leave their donations in a bucket. Using a homemade loom, she started weaving – without preparatory drawings – a design she saw in her head. Before you even get to the end result, the conviction, not to mention the sheer stamina required, is staggering.

What Ryggen created in this far-flung spot, where she lived from the mid-1920s, channelled both current affairs and her day-to-day experience. Modern Art Oxford’s survey, subtitled Woven Histories, features a rogue’s gallery of political thugs, their faces rendered angular and cartoonish by the horizontal and vertical lines of the weave. In one 1936 work, Hitler, Göring and Goebbels pop up like murderous glove puppets with blood-red faces and hands. Three decades later, Lyndon B Johnson’s beagle – for the artist a fluffy media distraction from the Vietnam war – becomes a similarly scarlet hound of hell. In between the monsters are freedom fighters, artist martyrs and Ryggen’s own family and farmyard animals.

Hannah Ryggen, Ethiopia, 1935, in which Mussolini is a square-faced Herman Munster with an arrow through his neck in place of a bolt. Photograph: Courtesy Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum/© Hannah Ryggen/DACS 2017

With her rough-hewn style and heartfelt message, Ryggen harnessed the raw power of folk or outsider art. Her seclusion, however, was only geographic. She spent six years as a painter’s apprentice before turning, pointedly, to weaving, and her renegade use of traditional rural techniques was just as attention-grabbing in 1930s Norway as it is now. Making tapestries almost exclusively for public spaces, she was known across Europe and America.

Homespun art … Hannah Ryggen at work 1958. Photograph: Klaus Forbregd/NTNU University Library

Since her death in 1970, the Swedish-born artist has remained a defining figure in Scandinavia, although she has only recently been rediscovered by the wider world. For most in the UK, this exhibition will be a revelation, and not just for her oddball mix of scalding protest and rustic weaving. What’s clear here is why Ryggen strikes a chord now. Her art has plenty to say when it comes to today’s most urgent political and environmental issues, from the “alt-right” to the slow food movement.

Early works from the 1930s give a lively impression of Ryggen’s sensibility. She focuses on the human dimension in headline news, even as she elevates contemporary figures into idealised archetypes. The tapestry Liselotte Herrmann depicts a young communist executed by the Nazis, as a Madonna, feeding the baby she was separated from. Even at her most homely, Ryggen tracks big issues, as with We and Our Animals, which relates her struggle, in rich oranges and indigos, to consume the beasts she reared and cared for. What’s at stake here is more than sentimental. During the Great Depression, not eating livestock was a life or death matter. The Ryggens’ smallholding kept them from starving.

This is unashamedly didactic art, its message stripped back to charged symbols and icons. Yet it never feels preachy. What makes the tapestries so memorable is their disarming frankness and jarring humour. Ryggen is happy to include a bird’s round butthole, her husband’s red nose or her own lopsided breasts, visible through her clothes. In her first overtly political work, Ethiopia, Mussolini is a square-faced Herman Munster with an arrow through his neck in place of a bolt.

Hannah Ryggen, Poem by TS Eliot, 1952. Photograph: © Hannah Ryggen/DACS 2017/Courtesy Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum

Ryggen wasn’t burdened by our own questions about the point of political art. That she came from a world where people believed culture made a difference is brought home, horrifically, in her 1940s output, when Norway was occupied, her husband imprisoned and emaciated POWs marched past the farm; 6 October 1942, a huge three-scene tapestry, shows theatre directors from the nearest cultural hotspot Trondheim, who were executed for their leftwing productions. On the right, beyond a bullish Winston Churchill, the Ryggens float on a rose-filled boat, awaiting disaster.

With their coarse weaves and tufted wool, her tapestries have a terrific, material presence. A committed communist, Ryggen used the weft and warp of the tapestry itself as a metaphor for the knotty social bonds that hold us together. She often brought in pattern to suggest this network in ways that make her rejection of preparatory drawings all the more astonishing. Mother’s Heart, about her cherished, epileptic daughter Mona, is a kaleidoscopic mix of abstract pattern, nudes, love-hearts and flowers.

Yet beyond the work’s physical heft, it’s Ryggen’s unique one-woman approach to the entire weaving process that really distinguishes her. As eccentric as it first seems, she struck on an art form that completely embodied her beliefs in self-sufficiency, social responsibility and the value of work, from start to finish. It’s impossible not to get caught up in her peculiar, impassioned fabrics.

[Editor] 姜鑫

    Artintern