This retrospective of 42 tapestries, many of which are mural-size and narrative, by Swedish-born Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen (1898-1970) is revelatory, summarizing her ability to use the warm, tactile medium of weaving to create affecting critiques of humanity. While the exhibition (which was co-organized by and travels to the Moderna Museet in Malmö) and Ryggen’s inclusion in the 2012 Documenta dovetail with the art world’s current appetite for both overlooked female artists and craft, her skill has been recognized internationally since the middle of the last century.
In the 1920s, Ryggen, who studied painting, taught herself how to weave on the Norwegian farm where she lived with her painter husband and their daughter. After learning to card, spin and dye wool with lichen, bark, human urine and other natural materials, Ryggen worked on a standing loom, weaving complex images—without preparatory drawings—in deep, expressionistic hues. In the 1930s, while the leftist newspapers that she read reported Nazis marching across Europe (the show includes clippings), Ryggen’s tapestries commenting on current events were circulating in exhibitions around the world. Like other socially committed artists of the time, such as Diego Rivera and Ben Shahn, Ryggen focused on depictions of people, often specific individuals.
The 4-by-5-foot tapestry Drommedod (Death of Dreams), 1936, in ominous browns and grays, portrays the narrative action in a band at the top of the piece. Jailed figures surround a trio of Nazi officers in the center, who twist the head of an ashen man. His limp body dangles down into an abstract field of swastikas, which fill much of the bottom three-quarters of the work. Although keyed to the Nazis’ imprisonment of the German pacifist journalist Carl von Ossietzky, the image—like the similarly structured Etiopia (Ethiopia), 1935, which refers to Mussolini’s invasion of the African country and was shown near Picasso’s Guernica at the 1937 world’s fair in Paris—conveys the weight of all those tortured and killed.
Ryggen created more complicated compositions in response to Nazi incursions in Norway, where her husband was among the pacifists imprisoned. An especially dynamic hanging is the 6-by-14-foot 6 October 1942 (1942), which bears witness to a day in Trondheim when several prominent resistance leaders were executed and martial law institutionalized the detention of Jews. Anchoring the composition on the right is a hearty trio—a woman holding an animal’s head, another wielding scissors and a man wearing a worker’s billed cap—that appears resolute despite being corralled into a vessel under the menacing presence of three red-faced men. On the left, a mustached Hitler swoops in and presides over bloody beheadings. In the center, behind a castle wall, a top-hatted man remains idle, as many in power did at that time.
Ryggen’s social critique did not diminish after the war ended, or after she gained success in the mid-1950s, when a Smithsonian-organized exhibition brought her tapestries to the United States. In 1966, two years after representing Norway at the Venice Biennale, Ryggen wove a particularly remarkable work, the nearly 8-by-10-foot Blod i gresset (Blood in the Grass). Created as the Vietnam War raged, it smolders with fiery hues. A man wearing a wide-brimmed, Western-style hat stands on the right with his dog. Hemmed in by the tapestry’s blood-red ground, which is interlaced with grasslike tufts of green pile, this cowboy—President Johnson? the United States?—appears isolated, oblivious and dangerous. The textile is evidence that until the end of her career Ryggen used color, composition and texture to create powerful indictments of injustice.