OXFORD, England — Living in the remote mountains of Scandinavia until her death in 1970, Hannah Ryggen had a clear, visceral view of 20th-century global politics. Her massive allegorical tapestries, now on view at Modern Art Oxford, attest to the artist’s strong condemnation of violence as the world burned through World War II, and later, the Vietnam War.
Ryggen’s retrospective Woven Histories is an unexpected bombshell of a show that rides on the coattails of a sudden surge in interest for the artist, who received a major solo exhibition at Oslo’s National Gallery in 2015. Although she had several major exhibitions in the 1950s and ’60s — and represented Norway at the 1964 Venice Biennale — few people knew her work outside Scandinavia until curators included her work in 2012’s Documenta 13. And it must be said: today’s interest in Ryggen’s work aligns quite well with society’s renewed fight against neo-fascism.
A devout Communist, she rejected city life for an idyllic existence as a subsistence farmer on the outskirts of Norway’s Trondheimsfjord region in Ørlandet with her husband. There, Ryggen decided to apply her six years of experience as a painter’s apprentice to weaving on a loom. One of her earliest fiber pieces, “Fishing in the Sea of Debt” (1933), depicts rural life as destitute, if also happy. Across a tangerine sky, Ryggen and her husband maintain their farm and hunt for fish. A rogue woman living without electricity or running water, Ryggen used her knowledge of paints to create natural pigments from foraged goods (birch leaves, bark moss, rosemary, and even urine). Fastened upon the tough, wooly fabric of Ryggen’s loom, the strange luminescent warmth of the homemade pigment often counters the extreme violence on display.
Look no further than “6 October 1942” (1943), which depicts the execution of Trondheim’s theater director, Henry Gleditsch, as a Nazi fantasia of sweeping, tragicomic cruelty. Churchill stands in the middle, protecting the Allied forces from behind fortified castle walls. On his right, a boat of refugees wades in the water. On his left, the scene of Gleditsch’s death plays out. His brains splatter on the floor while a demonic angel, Adolf Hitler, flies above Norway shitting oak leaves (a symbol of Germany) from above.
One year later, Ryggen found herself directly confronted by the Nazi menace. In 1944, the Third Reich had seized control of Norway and the Gestapo had seized her husband, throwing him in the Grini concentration camp in Bærum. After a year of processing this traumatic event, Ryggen completed “Grini” (1945), a stark depiction of Hans dressed as a Nazi prisoner painting skull signs for the Germans. Still, she shrugged off the Nazi threat, displaying her anti-fascist tapestries on a clothesline outside her house during the occupation.
The pièce de résistance of Ryggen’s retrospective is undoubtedly “Ethiopia” (1935), which depicts the Italian invasion of North Africa with quiet melancholy. While this piece lacks the frenetic energy seen in her later works, it communicates solemnity in the face of war. Organized as a horizontal diptych, the top portion of “Ethiopia” depicts Benito Mussolini’s sacking of the country. Raised hands in the center symbolize a united protest against the fascist Italian dictator, but the falling iron prison bars express futility. Meanwhile, in the upper right-hand corner, an Ethiopian man stabs a particularly blockheaded Mussolini through the head with a spear. (Some wishful thinking on Ryggen’s behalf, no doubt.) Below, something far more abstract is happening. Here, Ryggen is experimenting with the poetic patterning and geometry of her textiles. If the top portion expresses rage and sadness, then the bottom portion reveals something more abstract: an attempt to grasp order from the entropy of war.
Although more interest in the idioms of figurative folk art, Ryggen would occasionally dabble in abstractionism to express the ineffable qualities of violence. In a later example, “Blood in the Grass” (1966), the artist settles into yet another political row — this time aimed at President Lyndon B. Johnson who had recently been photographed lifting his dog up by the ears. As angry as she was with the president, Ryggen was angrier at how his minor controversy overshadowed the Vietnam War. Still a loyal to the Communist cause, Ryggen depicts LBJ as an American cowboy coated in neon pink dye. (Surely a dig at American machismo.) To the president’s left is an abstract regiment of grassy green fiber sprouting from the tapestry, divided by ravines of bloody red pigment and a white fence. As a cumulative image, “Blood in the Grass” is a striking symbol of American ignorance during the Vietnam War. As with all her work, here, Ryggen is vigilant in the face of war, using art as an accountant of injustice.
Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories continues at Modern Art Oxford (30 Pembroke St, Oxford, England) through February 18.