Last month, my friend Stephanie and I drove the 70 miles to Oxford and back to see an exhibition. I love a good exhibition, but I don’t usually travel quite so far to see something. This one was important to me though, and I didn’t know whether I’d get another chance to see the artist’s work first hand.
Hannah Ryggen – a brief history
When I first read about Hannah Ryggen’s art, I was so excited. A spinner, dyer and weaver who made all her work from scratch. Born in Sweden in 1894, she left home to study painting, which she did for six years. After meeting her husband in Dresden in 1922 she moved with him to a remote part of northern Norway surrounded by fjords and ocean. She spent the next decade teaching herself the skills she needed to be able to use tapestry as her medium. She often said that she regarded herself as a painter and that the warp was her canvas.
To create her huge woven works she collected, dyed, spun and wove each piece from scratch on a loom made by her husband. I’m a spinner, dyer and weaver and have a vague idea of the persistence and patience that must have involved. She used wool from local sheep, which she carded and spun. She made dyes from local plants, using urine of her family and house guests as a mordant. I guess all artists suffer for their art in some way or another.
When you look at the tapestries that hang on the walls of the exhibition, it’s impossible not to wonder at the time and effort spent in making them. Even before I was able to look at the symbolism in each piece, I was just agog because I could see in every weft thread the many levels on which Hannah Ryggen was an artist. It’s really extraordinary that she managed to make so many pieces of art. Over the 37 years of her tapestry career, from 1933 to her death in 1970, she created over 100 pieces. T
hat’s three a year, on average. Many thousands of yards of wool and linen, gathered, processed, spun, dyed and woven. You can probably tell I’m having trouble processing it. It takes me a month to dye, spin and weave a scarf.
Amazingly, she worked directly on to the tapestry, making no preliminary sketches. Sometimes she incorporated imagery on the fly – something she heard on the radio would make an impression and appear in the tapestry she was working on at the time.
A woven voice
The tapestries are very powerful. I wanted so badly to reach out and touch one of them, to feel her work beneath my fingers, and so to feel a physical connection with the artist. The images she created are so alive with meaning. Shekept in touch with the world from her remote home by listening to the radio and reading communist newspapers, and stitched her passion and outrage into the work, whether it was about the rise of fascism, the creation of NATO, nuclear armament, money lenders, or the the fierce love she felt for her family.
I am always in awe of people who can use their talent for fibre arts to say things that need to be said. Craftivism is a movement that I feel very passionately about – we use what we have to try to change the world for the better. I felt close to the tapestries in this exhibition because I understand and share the skills used to create it, and I deeply admire the way she used those skills to make powerful statements about the state of the world and how she felt about it.
Art or craft?
Hannah Ryggen’s work really brought home to me the schism between what is considered art and what is considered craft. Rozsika Parker’s book, The Subversive Stitch, examines this in fascinating detail for those who are interested. The gap in perception between art and craft is subtle, insidious and extremely deep rooted. Parker defines art as ‘a cultural practice involving iconography, style and a social function’, which Hannah Ryggen’s work undoubtedly is. However, the processing, dyeing, spinning and preparation of the yarn required would seem to fall under the craft umbrella. I felt that Hannah Ryggen’s work does so much more than bridge the gap between the two. It intertwines them to the point where they are no longer two separate things.
I’m not sure when Hannah’s tapestries will be making a return visit. The very nature of them makes them susceptible to damage, so they don’t travel often. I might have to take a trip to Norway to see some of her work in situ. Any excuse to travel!