© Peter Anker
The history of modern Norwegian tapestry art is long. Mixed up with all sorts of other textile arts with a variety of objectives, materials and techniques, tapestry weaving can be traced back to the “queen of the Oseberg boat” and the times of “troll witches”. Over our shoulder we can glimpse the processions from Baldishol and the tapestry weaver Johanne Jensdatter, the earliest Norwegian tapestry weaver to be mentioned by name who was burnt at the stake as a witch.
She is followed by all the folk traditions of tapestry weaving – either real or imagined – that were rediscovered by the bourgeoisie culture during the period of national romanticism. Norway’s nation builders of the 19th century designated tapestry weaving as a peculiarly Norwegian tradition, an ideal to inspire the creation of a new and patriotic art of weaving. One key player in this context is Gerhard Munthe and the home crafts movement. Characterised by a deep pride for the fatherland and by Jugendstil, this art of weaving had a redolent national presence. At the same time, and independent of majority trends, Frida Hansen pursued her own artistic objectives. And these had more distant horizons.
By contrast, the history of modern Norwegian tapestry weaving is brief. Its heyday stretches from around 1960 through to the 1990s, during which time some fifty-odd qualified artist-weavers were active. Hannah Ryggen and Synnøve Anker Aurdal form the backdrop. A “hard core” still remains, in other words, artists who live from their tapestry art with their own organisation, the NTK (the Association of Norwegian Textile Artists) still intact from its busy period of self-organisation; these artists continue to create pictures with the warp and weft of their looms. Some of them are naturally interested in finding an explanation for the brief history of modern tapestry weaving. Why was there such a blossoming from the 60s to the 80s, and how could it fade so quickly, after a mere two or three decades?
The blossoming can be explained in many ways: in simple terms, a number of favourable factors coincided. Crucial among them was new feminism and a move away from a tradition associated with Oslo City Hall. The conventional manner of production, with male artists making designs, and female weavers sitting at rug looms, was revised. A new generation of tapestry weavers (some men among them) asserted their freedom, sketching their own designs – or working their yarn directly into the warp. Frida Hansen was rediscovered. Liberation from the superannuated doctrine, which saw the traditional wall rug as the measure of all Norwegian art, was one of the challenges for this generation. These technical and artistic developments coincided with an increase in public activism in cultural politics during the 60s and 70s, which led to greater emphasis on the use of art in public spaces. Its highpoint was reached in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, consumer interest in tapestry weaving and textile art as forms of interior decoration declined. Without any clear reason, other than that occasional artistic droughts have to be reckoned with, there were fewer commissions and fewer competitions for public works. Circles of textile artists also contracted. Many tapestry weavers moved to other forms of expression. This is not to say that textile decoration became obsolete. But the support and enthusiasm for the genre is not what it was. Somewhere behind this development lies a Nivlheim, a somber, misty home of cultural politics and state budgets. The education minister of the time, Gudmund Hernes, was a one-eyed Odin who abolished textiles as a subject in secondary schools, with the result that a widespread skill and a fundamental tradition was lost.
At the same time, other artistic professions were experiencing growth. This has to do with the process of fundamental change and renewal that was affecting various forms of visual art. As artists began to explore new and speedy computer techniques, they distanced themselves from the slow and time-consuming methods of traditional tapestry weaving. Regardless of how one judges the content and artistic viability of these innovations, tapestry weaving remains a voice of continuity and a technique and form of artistic expression with endless links to the past – now on the outermost historical fringe of an electronic age. Confronted with pictures that appear instantly on the screen and just as quickly vanish – a constant flux of new ideas and criss-crossing perspectives – tapestry art remains true to its values: calmness and meditativeness.
But forward-looking tapestry artists are also making use of new techniques: computer technology allows rationalisation of both project planning and the process of weaving itself. It is these artists that form the hard core of tapestry art today. For my own subjective characterisation of these decades, I mention just a few names: Synnøve Anker Aurdal, Else Marie Jakobsen, Jan Groth, Britt Fuglevaag, Sidsel Colbiørnsen, Marianne Magnus, Marianne Mannsåker, Sissel Blystad, Tove Pedersen, and Ellen Lenvik. It is worth mentioning that others have found new forms of expression, materials and techniques.
Finally, a definition, so that no one should be confused or believe that we are talking about something else: tapestry weaving is a visual art like painting or sculpture. The loom is a tool, not an altar; yarn is a material, not a precious substance nor an expression in itself.
Synnøve Anker Aurdal (1908-2000) was already middle-aged when she first allowed herself to pursue her inclinations and her calling in life: to weave tapestries. It was a self-liberation, which is manifest in her contribution to the decorations for Håkons Hall in Bergen (together with Sigrun Berg and Ludvig Eikaas), in which aspects of folk art were still present. But in due course, her artistic language established itself as something more poetic, condensed into simple pictorial formulae, symbols for the universe and existence. “Dikt selv” (Be your own poet) is woven in colours which she “worked out” into personal symbols. Or in Fanfare – three trumpeter profiles, three hands, the triangular bells of three trumpets: yellow, orange, green, red, black. Maximum sound and volume. She is not part of the backdrop, but nevertheless an active force in modern tapestry art.
Else Marie Jakobsen (1927-), a “mater familias” of tapestry art, is based in Kristiansand. From there she emanates considerable influence, with church commissions as her mainstay, which she realises with a figurative visual language, although she happily takes on profane themes when occasion requires it. She throws herself into deep waters, trusting to her faith, her ideas, her causes, and works with a joyful, creative freedom – put across in the expressive forms and formal language of textiles. “Den røde tråd” (The Red Thread), which hangs in the angular vestibule of the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Bergen, is probably the largest tapestry in Norway. Divided into three open fields, it relates the history of Norwegian textiles from the time of the Vikings through to 1981.
Jan Groth (1938-) uses the line as his idiom, and in this sense he is a draftsman, even though he prefers to express himself in monumental formats. In pursuit of this preference he has developed the Gobelin technique, together with the weaver Benedikte Hansen, into a remarkably ascetic and sensitive medium of expression. Black lines on white, or white lines on a black ground. In its “movement of lines on the surface, like seismographic traces of the artistic sensibility” (Hellandsjø), this work partakes of a significant expressionist tradition, aligned with an enduring patriotic element in the decorative current of Norwegian textile art. In effect, he is the only Norwegian textile artist, if not the only visual artist as such, who is at home on the international art scene.
Britt Fuglevaag (1939-) enjoyed the same solid textiles training at the SHKS (the National College of Art and Design) as other Norwegian tapestry artists. At the art academy in Warsaw in the 1960s she encountered an entirely new approach to textile arts: experimental, focused on materials and their direct expression. She has woven and braided tapestries with relief-like surfaces, rough mixed techniques, unlike anything else in Norwegian textile art. More than anyone else, she has forged a link between tapestry art and modernism, thus bringing it in line with other art forms.
Sidsel Colbiørnsen (1942-). Throughout the 1970s, Colbiørnsen developed her weaving technique, materials, and hence also her expression, in many different directions, but eventually she found a focus in the classical strictness of the Gobelin project. With precision as her fundamental quality, she helped to keep this demanding tradition up to date, regardless of whether her visual idea was figurative or abstract in content. A mighty whale glides past us somewhere in the depths, but which depths? The animal’s progress is followed by nothing more than a faceless mouth with dark red lips. It is like listening to a momentous, distant, myth-like tale.
Marianne Magnus (1943-) soon stood out on account of exhibitions, official purchases, and numerous public commissions. She too is a “modernist”, in the sense that her compositions are non-figurative. But by means of razor-sharp precision in the play of light and shadow, she imbues her designs of imaginary, geometrical, interwoven braids with substance and an illusion of spatial reality. The otherwise problematic word “elegance” seems appropriate to describe this kind of intense and outward-going sobriety.
Sissel Blystad (1944-) weaves tapestries both large and small, with clear and sonorous colours, carefully composed and ordered in simple figures. This might sound as if her works are ornamental, but they are too powerful to be described as such. As is the aim of all monumental art, her large-format tapestries activate space. Also in Blystad’s works we detect something in the background – an experience, a condition or a mood, perhaps some signal of tension, or restlessness – or perhaps even great joy, amusement and celebration. We suspect the influence of pop art somewhere in the distant past. Blystad’s tapestries are certainly too active to be merely pretty; they disturb artistic apathy and general indolence. It is a quality to anticipate in the large-scale work she is creating for the lobby of the Storting (planned unveiling 2005).
Tove Pedersen (1945-). Pedersen’s work has one advantage over other tapestry art in that it is amusing. Apart from the joviality that the artist shares with the motto for Freia milk chocolate, her tapestries use the clear lines of comic strips and resonant colours. They deal with situations of vulnerability, such as the difficulties of riding a bike, or “Unity for the cause of the class struggle”, and can be anything up to monumental in size. But she can also present a beautiful meadow of flowers in the spirit of a Roman tradition, as in her Primavera – Villa Giulia. Ultimately her work amounts to a kind of textile version of the Norwegian “chanson”, with undertones reminiscent of the songs of Anne Grete Preuss, Lillebjørn Nilsen, Lars Klevestrand and Øystein Sundes.
Marianne Mannsåker (1951-) has always kept a sense for reality, either the perceptible or the imaginary, from which she derives formal elements that she can play with and build into spatial compositions; for example different staircases, which it would be a challenge to either climb or descend, or a long red frieze, where the barn back home has been turned into an architectonic composition of surfaces in heavy red tones, notably decorative without being ornamental.
Ellen Lenvik (1946-) is one of a few who to have made use of the excellent opportunity to study textile arts in nearby Scotland, where she graduated at the Edinburgh College of Art. In the 1970s and 80s she explored the material possibilities of tapestry art, using rag rug and napping techniques together with strong colours to create elements that seem to grow from the monochrome surfaces and are often gathered together in a central rectangular field, like a flowering meadow. Experiences of nature – meadows, mountains and the sea – constitute metaphors for emotional conditions. But we also find them constrained with an architectonic discipline in black tapestries with crook shapes silhouetted against the surface – as in the work entitled Pavanne after the courtly renaissance dance of that name.