Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories

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“Blood in the Grass” (1966) attacks the Vietnam War

Representing Norway at the Paris World Fair in 1937, where Pablo Picasso first showed “Guernica”, was the artist Hannah Ryggen, with her 1935 tapestry “Ethiopia”. The two works were exhibited next to each other in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic — Picasso’s cry of anguish against the Nazi bombing of the city in the Spanish Civil War, Ryggen’s epic heartfelt response to fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, with a bullet-headed Mussolini speared by an African fighter (folded over by the fair’s organisers to avoid offending the Italian government).

“Even as a child I was a red revolutionary,” she wrote. A member of the Norwegian Communist Party and lifelong fighter against war and capitalist injustice, she has been compared with the anti-fascist artists John Heartfield and George Grosz. But she was a true original who turned the working class art of weaving into a new kind of protest art, politically engaged with world events, yet earthy and human and domestic.

Her loom was her “harp”, whose strings were her threads, and up close you marvel at the fineness and detail of the work, which give her tapestries their richness and depth. She wanted them to be public property, not in the hands of private collectors, and we have the chance to discover them in an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford that celebrates this wonderful woman’s life and work.

She was born in Sweden in 1894, to a working class family in Malmo. She turned to weaving after six years as a painter’s apprentice, and wove her first large-scale works in the 1920s, after she moved with her husband, the Norwegian painter Hans Ryggen, to a remote smallholding in central Norway. It was a harsh, self-sufficient life, without electricity or running water. They grew their own vegetables and raised animals, and she spun and dyed the wool from their sheep — with mosses, herbs, tree bark and fermented human urine (guests were provided with buckets) — producing her glowing palette of reds, golds and ochres, indigos and vibrant greens.

Her sheer physical stamina was phenomenal, weaving her tapestries on her enormous homemade loom and working on the farm. “We and Our Animals” is a tender portrait of her family at the supper table, surrounded by the cows and chickens they have cared for, unable to touch the meat on their plates.

But the farm saved them from starvation when Norway was hit by the great depression of 1931. This produced her first major political tapestry, her 1933 “Fishing in the Sea of Debt”, showing a fat banker and his wife counting their profits from the crash, above a sea of drowning men, women and children.

Workers and anti-fascists are struggling and human, politicians and businessmen are lying and corrupt, and Nazis are grotesque cartoon thugs with blood-red eyes. In her 1936 “Death of Dreams” Nobel Prize winners Albert Einstein and Carl von Ossietzky stare from the bars of a prison as Hitler, Goebbels and Goering drag a lifeless body over the roof topped with swastikas. “Liselotte Herrmann”, two years later, is a moving study of the young German communist resistance fighter feeding her baby, before she was taken from him to be beheaded.

After the Nazis occupied Norway in 1940 she refused to be silenced when her friends and comrades were jailed and tortured. She escaped arrest herself, and wove some of her most powerful tapestries during the five-year occupation, hanging them on the washing line when starving prisoners were led past the house.

“Freedom” (1941) honoured the labour activists executed for resisting the Norwegian Nazi Party’s takeover of the trade unions. “6 October 1942” marked the day martial law was declared in her area, with portraits of anti-fascists murdered the day afterwards, and her family sailing in rough waters in a small boat filled with roses, watched by a rogues’ gallery of local collaborators.

In 1944 her husband was arrested as a communist and deported to the Grini labour camp, where he was forced to paint portraits of his guards. In “Grini” he sits ill and emaciated in his prison uniform behind a tangle of barbed wire, drawing skulls on cardboard. He was released in broken health after Norway was liberated in 1945, and died 11 years later.

After the war she supported the campaign for nuclear disarmament and opposed Norway’s membership of Nato. Her 1966 “Blood in the Grass” used chemically dyed acid colours to attack American imperialism and the war in Vietnam, with a blood-soaked President Johnson in a cowboy hat in a landscape of lurid reds and greens.

Since her death in 1970 her works have been shown in public spaces across Norway. Her 1958 tapestry “We Are Living On a Star”, a dreamy hippy vision of love and peace, was in one of the Oslo government buildings bombed in 2011 by the fascist Anders Breivik, and was damaged in the blast, but is displayed unrepaired, as she would have wanted, as a warning from history.

Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories is at Modern Art Oxford until 18 February. modernartoxford.org.uk