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100 years of Norwegian tapestry

At the World Fair in Paris in1900, two Norwegian artists were awarded gold medals for their tapestries. One was delighted, while the other was angry and disappointed. These differing responses give some insight into the manner tapestry as an art form would be regarded in the 20th century.

Frida Hansen (1855-1931) was elated at receiving the gold medal, which gave her international recognition. It followed that important museums and major collectors throughout Europe bought many of her tapestries. Gerhard Munthe (1849-1927) was the frustrated recipient. He considered himself a major artist, as a painter, he craved recognition for his painting and not for his”dabblings” with tapestry.

GERHARD MUNTHE. Daughters of the Northern Light (also called The Suitors), 1889.

Munthe was a capable if somewhat pedestrian landscape painter. Educated in Christiania (Oslo), Düsseldorf and Münich, it seems that he sensed a lacking in his naturalistic paintings. He confirms this by stating that he only found freedom to express his imaginative and exploratory skills in what he would term ”minor art forms” i.e. cartoons for tapestry, illustration, jewellery, medals and furniture. Ironically, it was for his”minor” works that he gained enormous public acclaim. These works were considered to express”the Norwegian Soul”, so greedily craved for by a nationalistic public who wanted independence from Sweden. Munthe himself was acutely aware of this and writes, ” When I first ventured into the realm of pattern and decoration, I heeded exactly the colours and forms that to me represented the very Norwegian identity”. His work struck the”spirit of the time” to establish a particular Norwegian identity. Today such a nationalist attitude and ideology would at best be found comic, at worst racist and dangerous.

Munthe’s involvement with tapestry was complicated. While enjoying fame and flattery, he was doubtful, even condescending, about the practice of translating and bastardising his”real art”, into soft woolly hangings. ”Oh, these weaving ladies” sighed Munthe,”they drown my Art in wool”. The dichotomy in Munthe’s thinking epitomises the difference between Fine Art and Applied Art that has had major influence on the development of Art & Design in the 20th century. This dichotomy begs the question”Is, what shall be deemed art, predetermined and prejudged by its media and material, rather than its visual strength and content?”

With a closer look at Munthe’s tapestries, they seem flat and lack rhythm in their contrived pseudo-mediaeval style. Their illustrative content represents a mixture of fairy tales, sagas, and folklore. In their time they were celebrations of a noble and heroic Norwegian past. Today they are interesting curiosities, yet uncomfortable mirrors of their time. They are monumental images that give a direct visual authenticity to the mentality and aspirations of Norway at the turn of the century.

FRIDA HANSEN. The Milky Way, 1898.

Unlike Munthe, Frida Hansen chose tapestry as the expressive media for her art. Her early life had been fraught by disappointment and tragedy. Hers is a story of riches to rags. She married young a wealthy businessman. They lived in grand style in a manor house. Her husband was declared bankrupt and lived abroad for some years. Being destitute and having to care for an extended family alone, Frida moved to a small house in Stavanger. Two of their three children died. In desperation, she started an embroidery shop in her own home. Occasionally old tapestries were brought for repair. These tattered old ”åkle” captured Frida’s interest in the art of tapestry. She received some basic instruction in the craft, had a loom made and began to make her own work. Within a short space of time she began to sell her tapestries, took students as assistants and had exhibitions in major cities. The years of hardship and tragedy had made her self-reliant and had given her an artistic resolve.

Frida Hansen was a self-taught artist. It appears that her knowledge and ability with colour, form and composition came from her gardening experience. The formal gardens she created at their manor house, Hillevåg, were so renowned that they were open to the public at certain times of the year. By the spring of 1895 she could afford to study Mediaeval Art in Cologne, followed by life drawing classes in Paris. Both these ventures are central to her development. The contemporary art of Europe changed the content and image of her art. It moved from a traditionalist and nationalist style to the international style of Symbolism and Art Nouveau. When asked where she got her ideas from, she replied”Ideas? Strangely enough craft and design don’t give me ideas; it is Art that gives me the most impulses”.

Hansen’s allegoric tapestries, elegant and rich in content and composition are ambitious in a renaissance sense. Not only does she speak in an international manner, she transgresses style and reveals personal, intimate aspects of her own life. Anniken Thue writes,” the meeting with French Art Nouveau meant that her beloved garden at Hillevåg was resurrected as pure poems in wool”.

The acclaim Frida Hansen received for her tapestry abroad was never quite equalled at home in Norway. She found herself in the difficult position of being a career woman at a time when women did not even have the vote. Her art was never considered Norwegian in the same idolatry manner that Munthe’s was. Nevertheless she must be regarded as one of the first Norwegian artists to have obtained international reputation.

From 1900 –1930 the art world experienced a fast moving revolution with an array of different movements, from Fauvism to Surrealism. Symbolism and Art Nouveau became passé and were frowned upon by the avant-garde and leaders of taste. At home in Norway, Frida Hansen ran a large studio and patented one of her innovations, called a ”transparente”. A woven hanging with an open warp, used as a ”portièr” or room divider, which allowed light to pass through. By 1920 her art was losing popularity and after her death in 1931 she was totally forgotten for 50 years. Had it not been for Anniken Thue’s resurrection of this artist, her art might still be erased from Norwegian Art History.

HANNAH RYGGEN. Grey Figure, 1961. ©BONO

After the first flourish of interest in tapestry in the early 20th century, very little seemed to happen. Both public interest and artistic impetus ground to a halt, except for one outstanding artist, Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970). She emerged as an artist in the Thirties and stamped her visions on the Norwegian conscience until her death. Born in Malmø, Sweden, she married Hans Ryggen, a painter, and they settled in Ørlandet, outside Trondheim. She started her adult life as a dissatisfied and frustrated schoolteacher. She said of herself that she was awkwardly shy and virtually mute for 20 years. A contrast to her mature years where she proved to be an eloquent and captivating speaker to large audiences, as demonstrated in a radio programme where with great delight she described the use of urine to make ”piss blue”. Hannah Ryggen had some early tuition from the Danish painter Fredrik Krebs in Lund. Tuition in tapestry was limited to using her eyes and asking questions as the course she wished to enrol in was full. Undaunted she bought a ”Flemish” loom and started to weave.

What is singularly special with Hannah Ryggen is that she shows an amazing ability to draw ”in the loom”. Indeed this is precisely what she did, never having a cartoon, drawings or even sketches, and never drawing guidelines on the warp. The whole tapestry was conceived in her head. She said,” the heart, the eye and the hands are the way of tapestry”. Inevitably she used the process of weaving, the structure of the material, and the function of the loom as governors of proportion and composition. Often her compositions are presented in geometric settings. Even more striking is the rhythmic repeat which measures exactly the length that is visible of the tapestry before it is wound down on to the roller. She obviously possessed an exceptional visual memory, coupled with an imaginative and intuitive use of the Golden Section. Her attitude towards tapestry was essentially traditional both technically and formally. She spun and dyed her own wool, using vegetable dyes. Much of her weaving technique and vision echo tapestries from the ”Golden Age” of Norwegian tapestry, 1550-1800.

The strength in her tapestries is its content rather than its technique. Her work was concerned with her close private life as well as great international political issues, and the fusion of the two themes. Intimate and public concerns conveyed with earnest directness. She says of herself ”I am not really a tapestry weaver, it just suited my temperament to express myself in the loom, I found my instrument”. Her ”instrument” played so loud and clear that it heralded many other artists who found tapestry to be their ”tune” In 1964 Hannah Ryggen was the first tapestry artist to be invited to show her work at the important annual exhibition of Norwegian contemporary art, the ”Statens Høstutstilling”. Yet, in the same year she represented Norway at the rather more prestigious Venice Bienniale.

SYNNØVE ANKER AURDAL. Portrait Bleu, 1986. ©BONO

It would take18 years before another tapestry artist would show at the Venice Biennale, Synnøve Anker Aurdal (1908 –1999). In her youth she learnt tapestry weaving in her hometown of Lillehammer, making copies of traditional Norwegian tapestries. She came from a cultured background and wished to be an artist. She applied to the Art & Craft School in Oslo but was refused. An event she remembered with disappointment as she often felt that she lacked the basic fundamentals of art that this school could have taught her. She became a student at the ”Kvinnelige Industriskole” and learnt drawing and flat-loom weaving. After this she started her own school and workshop with her friend Randi Holte.

In the 1940’s, during the German occupation, due to the shortage of weaving materials she made appliqués reminiscent of traditional Norwegian tapestries in their composition. It is with this collage method that we see the emergence of her style and authority. With a collage technique she found a compositional freedom. The elements in her cartoons had the possibility to be interpreted in an open manner in the loom. Synnøve Anker Aurdal is renowned for the experimentation she brought to tapestry. From early in her career she operated freely with the format, shape and proportion of her work in both 2 and 3 dimensions. She introduced untraditional materials, such as, beads, plastic, metal, and mirror, and experimented with surface and colour. In Synnøve Anker Aurdal one sees a thoroughly professional artist who pursued her art and career with discipline and energy. She is a good example of a modernist, her tapestries mirroring this in form and mood. Her work is not involved with narrative. Neither political statement nor feminine issues are subjects in her work. She deals in abstraction and aesthetics.

From her first exhibitions her work was well received. Her intimate acquaintance with the leading modernists of the time taught her much and amazingly didn’t hinder her career. It must be remembered that Modernism, or Abstract Art, was frowned upon in Norway until well into the late 50’s. Anything non-figurative, from Malevitch to Jackson Pollock, was regarded as without content and therefore a threat to Art itself. Synnøve Anker Aurdal’s work escaped this weird polemic only because it was tapestry. Tapestry was somehow outside the debate of real art.

The 20th century is often referred to as the Century of the Woman. Synnøve Anker Aurdal is the outstanding example in Norway of a woman who became a successful modernist with the peripheral media that tapestry is.

Hannah Ryggen and Synnøve Anker Aurdal are two tapestry makers who are involved with art and ideas primarily, and see technique, tradition and craft as a means to an end. Tapestry is often applauded more for its craft than for its visual idea. It is applauded because it is a slow craft that demands patience. Its technical skills can achieve the most virtuoso results. It is a craft that can interpret artists’ cartoons. It is a craftsman’s art, as well as an artist’s craft.

Else Halling (1899 – 1984), in contrast to Ryggen and Anker Aurdal, was primarily concerned with tapestry as a craft. In her view no tapestry could surpass the Norwegian traditional tapestries (1550-1800) in composition, technique or materials. She wished to conserve this traditional heritage. This led her to a thorough investigation into the spinning, dyeing, weaving techniques of these traditional tapestries in an effort to clarify how and why they look as they do. Her greatest discovery was that the old weavers used the hair and not the wool from a primitive breed of sheep called ”spælsau”. This hair was spun hard and gave a particular sheen to the surface. This material was easy to weave, took dye well, and was exceptionally strong and durable. She also found that these old tapestries were constructed using mostly dovetailing and interlocking threads, and believed, wrongly, that these techniques were uniquely Norwegian.

Else Halling ran a professional tapestry workshop, Norsk Billedvev A/S, from 1951 to 1968, where she produced, from artists’ cartoons, commissioned tapestries. These tapestries are to be found in many public buildings. She was also the head teacher in tapestry at the Kvinnelige Industriskole from 1941 to 1964, were she communicated with enthusiasm her knowledge and opinions. She was quite clear in her vision that one person created the cartoon and another with interpretative skills wove it. She didn’t think there was a schism between these two aspects. She didn’t see the point of her students and assistants making their own ideas. They were there to execute other artists’ visions, as indeed other professional workshops do the world over. She believed that she could not teach anyone to be an artist, but could teach technical skills. If these technical skills were not excellent then the tapestry was inferior. Else Halling had a passionate belief that the early Norwegian tapestries were the ultimate form for tapestry. However, younger artists had other opinions, aims and ideals.

JAN GROTH. Sign, 1994. ©BONO

Jan Groth (1938 - ) was one such young artist. While Hannah Ryggen, Synnøve Anker Aurdal or Else Hallings workshop never achieved a true international reputation and recognition, Jan Groth has. Known for his elegant non-figurative white motifs on black grounds, his work gives breadth to the nature of tapestry by incorporating vibrant contemporary western ideas with an understanding of eastern calm. His visual language finds expression in many media, drawing, fine prints, sculpture and tapestry. His ex-wife, Benedikte, in Copenhagen, weaves his tapestries while he has lived most of the time in New York and Oslo. In New York he taught, not tapestry, but the development of students ideas in many differing media. He works in a post-modern global situation, and this is reflected in his work. While some term him a minimalist, he says he is not, though his work is refined and sparse.

1968 saw the student uprisings in Paris and elsewhere. A call for change, political, cultural, social and educational was heralded. 1970 saw this revolution take place amongst Norwegians artists. Their Union campaigned, demonstrated and won the right to negotiate directly with the government and not through middlemen. This was an incredible achievement, which gave political and social benefits to Norwegian artists, and foreign artists living in Norway that was unheard of elsewhere in the world, with the exception of Holland who achieved similar rights with their government. The benefits that befell the artists included a guideline for qualification to the professional artists union, more grants and stipends, a guaranteed minimum wage for qualified artists over 40, and that 2% of the building cost of all state buildings would be allocated to the commissioning of art. These measures created a vast expansion of artistic activity, particularly in the field of public art where tapestry was very popular with architects. Art and artists were to be incorporated into the fabric of society. The term “artist” referred to all individuals involved in the Arts, writers, actors, musicians, etc. Norway had a long tradition of being a social democrat state, and with this background it is easy to understand how artists became political animals once the starting pistol had been fired in Paris. The impetus and energy of this movement enabled the creation of more chapters within the various Artist Unions. The Norwegian Textile Artists Association was founded, having a predominance of artists who worked with tapestry. The majority of people involved with flat weaving, fabric printing, embroidery, knitting etc. were organised in the Crafts Union.

Generally tapestry is regarded as a craft, an applied art, and not a fine art. With these political and social changes for artists something quite unique had been accepted. Tapestry was accepted as a fine art, which gave the status of artist and not craftsman to tapestry weavers. This meant that they could compete with other artists for stipends, exhibitions etc. They gained their own jury in the annual state exhibition (Statens Høstutstilling), which brought public interest and critical acclaim.

Through this political activity the work of many talented artists was given prominence in the 70’s and 80’s. As stated, tapestry became a significant partner with architecture in many state, county and private institutions. Tapestries for the first time were purchased by the National Museum for Contemporary Art. Many of the artists responsible for this breakthrough are still active today and their names and work, together with younger artists, can be found on http://www.absolutetapestry.com

Today tapestry no longer fights for its right to be an art medium. It is just one of the many vehicles available to artists for the expression of their ideas. Yet, in contrast to the electronic media that is fast, cool and fashionable, tapestry is an anachronism. It’s slow, tactile and sensual and appeals to different judgements and sensations. The contemporary attitude that it’s the idea that is paramount and the medium is of secondary importance is also applicable to tapestry, as can be seen in the work of many young artists.

Contemporary Norwegian tapestry is well represented in international exhibitions and certainly echo’s the sentiments of the jury for the Artapestry exhibition of 2005 who wrote: ”Today we actively seek a new form, directions, purpose, even justification for woven tapestry”, which highlights the search for a new dynamic for tapestry in the 21st century.

During the 20th century the terms art and craft, fine art and applied art and the status of art have had differing interpretations. Likewise artists’ attitudes, ideals and practise have also changed. The public, critics and historians have also found differing criteria for what is acceptable as art and art practise. Art itself is an organic organism that is constantly changing form, direction, content and meaning. Its nature and function are increasingly difficult to understand. Art is an on-going debate and knowledge of its past gives creative fuel for argument. Of the artists discussed here there are differing aspects worthy of examination. Hannah Ryggen was the most traditionally based artist in terms of her practise. She did all the work herself and could not have assistants as she wove directly from her ”heart”. Many lay people would call her a true artist because everything was hand-made by her own hands. However, Munthe, Hansen, Anker Aurdal, and Groth could never have achieved what they have produced without assistance. Does this make them lesser artists? Is their technique better because they didn’t weave the tapestries themselves? What is most important, who had the idea or who wove the piece? But it is quite clear it is the artist who gets the status and renown, not the craftsperson. It is quite curious that while it was, and is acceptable that Gerhard Munthe had ”ladies” to make his tapestries, it would never have been acceptable that others made his paintings. Why was this the case when it is recorded that Titian, Rubens etc. all had assistants who did the donkey work.

Where did Andy Warhol get his idea for ”the Factory”? It is Andy Warhol’s signature that creates his work, not the physical labour, as it was Frida Hansen’s style that gave her work its particular personality. But did Frida Hansen regard herself as an artist or a craftsman, or both. Were her ideas art, but her tapestries craft? Did the artists who produced cartoons for Else Halling consider the tapestries she made to be art, or just an applied art? Would Jan Groth’s art be better if he concentrated on weaving his tapestries himself? At different times during the last century these questions would solicit very different answers and opinions. Today the answers might be more similar. In the post-modern era new media has created new art forms. What was once seen as not art is art today. Photography is very much art today, yet fine prints are not acceptable if they are mechanically produced. They still must show the direct touch of the hand of the artist / craftsman. Ordinary mass produced objects become art by a change of context. Electronic media and performance has opened up new horizons. Artists are their own art as with Gilbert & George. Art can and is made of anything. Nothing is sacred. Plagiarism has become appropriation. Salvador Dali’s last great anarchistic gesture was to sign and sell blank sheets of paper for others to fill with the kind of (Dali-esque or not) art they liked.

Theories abound and none are correct. Questions are more correct than answers. Is art a part of the entertainment business? Are artists’ personalities more important than their art? Where would art be without its ability to shock, it’s craving for publicity, and the financial investment that is placed in it? In a fragmented society with a rich heritage the artists’ stands free to select whatever ideas, media, methods and content they wish. Within this vast horizon of possibilities tapestry still has a role to play if the artist creates it.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alsvik, H. & Østby, L. (1951) Norges billedkunst 1. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag

Thue, A. (1986) Frida Hansen. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Gjelsvik, M.M. (1993) Hannah og Hans Ryggen. Trondheim: N.T. Forlag.

Lium, R.N. editor (1994) Jubileumsboken, Hannah Ryggen 100 år. Trondheim: Tapir.

Danbolt, H. (1991) Synnøve Anker Aurdal. Oslo: Grøndahl Dreyer A/S.

Hellandsjø, K. (2000) Signs: Jan Groth’s art. Oslo: The National Museum of Contemporary Art.

Lium, R.N. (1992) Ny Norsk billedvev. Oslo: Huitfeldt Forlag.