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Norwegian Threads: Hannah Ryggen and Contemporary Textile Art (Norwegian Arts)

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‘During the Renaissance […] the once-prized art of needlework was relegated to the status of mere craft…’ So opens a new book by Charlotte Vannier entitled Threads: Contemporary Embroidered Art (Thames & Hudson) which seeks to rectify this relegation by celebrating the work of more than eighty artists for whom the needle is mightier than the brush. But the hierarchy that places art above craft, and in doing so the labour of men above ‘women’s work’, has a long history – one that author of The Craftsman Richard Sennett traces back to Aristotle, quoting Metaphysics:

‘We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they the reasons of the things which are done.’

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Hannah Ryggen at the loom, c.1964, Adresseavisen, Trondheim.

As well as placing thinking above making, Aristotle uses the Greek word cheirotechnon or ‘handworker’ for artisan in place of the older word demioergos, which combined ‘public’ and ‘productive,’ placing craft at the heart of industrious communities. Craft was already becoming domesticated, and by extension feminised, in ancient Greece. Vannier suggests that it was in the 1960s and 1970s that female artists took up needlework and ‘asserted their status as artists in their own right’, but women have been using needles to subvert the restrictions placed upon them for far longer. In eighteenth and nineteenth-century Japan, peasants were restricted to wearing bast and hemp, fabrics with such a loose weave that they wore easily and let in the cold. Sashiko stitching emerged as a way to fill the gaps and strengthen and insulate the fabric, and women in the Nambu region developed highly decorative koginzashi and hishizashi stitches to subvert these punitive sumptuary laws. In the early-twentieth century, suffragettes countered arguments that only ‘unwomanly women’ wanted the vote by creating protest banners and handkerchiefs using highly accomplished, and defiantly feminine, needlework. And in 1923, just as Anni Albers (1899–1994) was subverting Walter Gropius’ expectations of the ‘beautiful sex’ at the Bauhaus in Germany, Swedish-Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen (1894–1970) put down her paintbrush to take up weaving. Despite recognising the industriousness and perseverance required for her chosen medium, her fiancé’s response was typical of its time:

‘Weaving is women’s work from time immemorial, and […] it seems only natural that you who are such a true woman, decided to weave rather than paint art. Painting is in a way more men’s work.’

Undeterred, she set about creating a body of work that not only fused folk art traditions with contemporary art, but was also a damning critique of social inequality, injustices at home and abroad and the rising fascism of the time. Proclaimed a genius by (male) art critics and exhibited all over the world, she has since been written out of Norwegian art history and is only now being rediscovered. In 2017–2018 Modern Art Oxford mounted Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories, an exhibition exploring Ryggen’s ‘intense relationship to the world around her’ and her ‘impassioned responses to the socio-political events of her time’, and on 20 September 2019, Hannah Ryggen: Woven Manifestos opened at The Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, a major monographic featuring 25 of her tapestries, which the Schrin describes as ‘spectacular visual attacks’. With 122 illustrations, Marit Paasche’s new book, Hannah Ryggen: Threads of Defiance (Thames & Hudson) seeks to reinsert Ryggen into art history where she belongs, but perhaps more importantly, repositions craft as a powerful tool in its own right.

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Threads: Contemporary Embroidered Art book cover

Ryggen’s tapestries can indeed be seen as art, but perhaps more accurately, also as activism. Fishing in a Sea of Debt (1933) depicts debt collectors ‘fishing in the bloody waters of financial ruin’ and doesn’t pull its punches – a woman’s body sinks to the bottom as a man struggles to keep the heads of two small children above water and a doctor takes coins from a dead man on the shore. Ryggen herself wrote a poem to describe Mother’s Heart (1947), which includes the lines ‘something happens to the child / the heart is broken into a thousand / pieces. She crawls around / to collect the shards / People watch helplessly.’ Other tapestries protest against the war between Italy and Ethiopia (Ethiopia, 1935), the treatment of Car von Ossietzky at the hands of the Third Reich (Death of Dreams, 1936) and the North Atlantic Treaty (Jul Kvale, 1956).

Ryggen inspired a generation of Norwegian women to express their own defiance through thread. One of the artists profiled in Threads: Contemporary Embroidered Art is Äsa Ljones. Her grandmother taught her hardangersaum, a type of needlework unique to the rural area on the west coast of Norway where she grew up. Her early work at the Bergen Art Academy involved stitching together locally sourced fish skins into large two- and three-dimensional forms and embroidering natural rubber with silk. Today, she still honours her ancestry and humble origins in the large-scale embroidered wall hangings which have been brought by Norway’s largest museums and the Norwegian Embassy in Nepal’s Kathmandu. She uses the primhol (‘prime hole’) technique particular to hardangersaum to create semi-transparent pieces which play with natural light to create a subtle, meditative quality. ‘I am looking for a silence that evokes something in the user,’ she tells Vannier.

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Norwegian Sweater – original damaged sweater from Annemor Sundbø’s Ragpile collection with white wool darning by Celia Pym, 2010.

British artist Celia Pym’s Norwegian Sweater is also featured in the book. When textiles designer Annemor Sundbø bought Torridal Tweed og Ulldynefabrikk, the last shoddy mill in Norway, she also acquired 16 tonnes of cast-off woollen sweaters, socks, mittens and underwear that ranged from 30 to 100 years old. They were all destined to be shredded for ‘shoddy’ or recycled yarn, but, realising the value of their record of ordinary working people’s skills she kept some of them and passed one in particular onto Pym, who is known for darning other people’s clothes. ‘It’s the most badly damaged object I have ever had to mend,’ Pym tells Vannier, ‘and also the first sweater that I have mended without knowing how the damage occurred.’ Inspired by the darned jumper her Grandfather wore holes in as he drew, she is interested in the patterns of use that damaged clothes reveal and how mending clothes often equates to caring for those who wear them.

While the defiance expressed by Pym, Sundbø and Ljones might be quieter than Ryggen’s, one contemporary artist is following more closely in her footsteps. Featured in another new book, Vitamin T: Threads & Textiles in Contemporary Art (Phaidon), Britta Marakatt-Labba was raised in a Sámi community in Sweden and went on to study in Norway. She created The Roots (2018) in response to right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attacks in Norway, in which several young Sámi people lost their lives. Six trees, their roots severed, represent their lives cut short, and twelve figures their mourning mothers. Breivik not only shot 69 people on the island of Utøya that day, but also detonated a bomb that killed eight and injured more 30 more. It also damaged Hannah Ryggen’s We Are Living on a Star (1958). One of her more optimistic pieces, it took on new significance when it was restored and returned to its rightful place in the entrance hall of the Highrise, a government building in Oslo, next to a plaque that says, ‘The mysteries of the universe and love’s essential place in our world,’ – its faith in love as a personal and political force enduring in spite of everything. Pretty powerful for ‘mere craft.’

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Åse Ljones, View, Embroidery on linen, 2016.

This article was published on the Norwegian Arts website and can be read here. Top photograph: Hannah Ryggen’s We Are Living on a Star (1958) on view at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2019. Photography: Norbert Miguletz.