A woman weaving herself into history

Hypnotising acidic colours scream out for Anoushka Kavanagh’s attention

Hanging midway through Modern Art Oxford’s latest exhibition, ‘Blood in the Grass’ (1966) is a piece unlike any of Hannah Ryggen’s other tapestries. Perhaps that’s why it’s so poignant. The emerald matted grass-like threads are intersected by violent, red stripes – hypnotising acidic colours screaming out at their audience for attention.

Lyndon B. Johnson stands rigidly to the right: adorned in crimson Navajo prints, and mouth drawn in a tight frown, he dangles his dog by the ears. To viewers of the ‘60s, this image would have been familiar, as it recalls a 1964 photograph of the President, widely circulated in the press.

‘Blood in the Grass’ is the only work in which Ryggen made use of manufactured dye, straying from her practice of natural colouring. And everything about it – from the vigorous colours to repurposing of a symbolic press image – reflects the excitable spirit of the new protest decade in which it was woven.

In fact, the Norwegian artist was herself taking a stand against Western media in this work: in Ryggen’s eyes, the papers’ focus on Johnson mistreating his pooch over escalating US airstrikes on Vietnam indicated a disingenuous focus of the press.

Ryggen was no stranger to protest though, taking up objection and opposition through her weaving long before the 60s. Born in 1894, she lived through the economic crises of the 1930s, Nazi occupation of Norway the following decade, and the Vietnam War. She was a member of Norway’s Communist Party and a fierce defender of democracy, her husband was imprisoned in the labour camp Grini, and her only daughter was diagnosed with the then little understood condition, epilepsy.

The overwhelming weavings on the walls chart this political and personal upheaval of her lifetime, visualising the struggle against oppression. Both the mental and physical brutality of the Nazi regime are brought out in ‘Death of Dreams’ (1936) for instance, in which a lifeless corpse is dragged by Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels over a pit of Swastikas, towards a cage of incarcerated, comatose souls.

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Nobel Peace Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky chillingly shakes his shackled hands at us from behind bars on the far left – reflecting the artist’s defence of pacifism. Activism for peace again arises in later weavings, notably the symbolic ‘Mr Atom’ (1952). Here, the haloed Atom King – a personification of nuclear weapons – floats cross-legged above Adam and Eve.

Seen as an almighty God-like figure, and attributed the Norwegian abbreviation of HRH, the focal figure suggests Ryggen views nuclear power as an undemocratic and unassailable threat to the human race.

‘Mr Atom’ depicts one more figure of note – the artist herself. Clutching Eve in one hand, and her tapestry needle in the other, this was not the first time Ryggen had woven herself into her work. She appears in ‘Jul Kvale’ (1956), grabbing the Communist politician’s arm. In ‘6 October 1942’ (1943), in a small boat in choppy waters, floating among the heads of local police leaders who had betrayed Norway to the Nazis, and in ‘A Free One’ (1947/8), amidst struggling workers, holding a shining sunflower. Encasing oneself in political pieces like this is not all too common for artists, and Ryggen writing herself into the protest raises an interesting point, especially given her gender.

In directly tying herself to the issue at stake – be it nuclear armament, Nazi occupation, or dissolution of class boundaries – Ryggen makes a point of bringing women visibly into the public, political sphere.

And though her medium may be traditional ‘women’s work’, her compositions and subjects are anything but. Tapestries of this scale and ambition resemble history paintings by the likes of David and Goya.

Recording events of the twentieth century, Ryggen too was depicting history. Yet through her woven works, with the presence of the female artist, she ensured there would now be space for women in the writing. Interestingly, Ryggen never described herself as a weaver, always as a painter. It just so happened that her tool was “not the brush, but the loom”.

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Unfazed by contemporary gender norms, it seems she was an unknowing pioneer for women in the art – and wider world, long before the feminist movement of the 1970s broke out. And as activist feminist art seems recently to have peaked once more, this relatively unknown artist’s work is the perfect source of reflection and inspiration we all need.