Hannah Ryggen: Radicalizing the Loom in Norway, 1922-1958


Excerpt from Hannah Ryggen: Radicalizing the Loom in Norway, 1922-1958

A Swedish artist who spent most of her life in Ørland, Norway, Hannah Ryggen (1894- 1970) was a formally trained painter and self-taught weaver who created socially and politically engaged work for nearly five decades. Uncompromising in voicing her political and aesthetic opinions, Ryggen’s unique blend of activism and expressionism challenged traditional definitions of craft and political art to transform the loom into a powerful, radicalized tool of resistance. While many of her contemporaries were turning away from figuration towards formal investigation of materials, Ryggen blended abstraction and representation to create narrative scenes that chronicled and critiqued contemporary events, particularly the rise of Fascism.

Through expressive, flattened shapes, her large-scale tapestries, her primary medium, documented geopolitical events as well as issues of domestic labor and personal politics. For instance, Lisa Lotte Herrmann (1938) memorializes the German Communist Resistance fighter who had her child taken from her and was executed by the police. We and Our Animals (1934) depicts Rygggen’s family farm, where she spun and dyed her yarn.

Beyond the strength of her imagery and the conceptual rigor of her process, Ryggen’s biography is particularly compelling. She was an active member of the Norwegian Communist party, a participant in the Norwegian resistance in World War II, and a dedicated, early advocate of feminism. Ryggen also bravely spoke out against wartime atrocities by exhibiting her anti-Fascist tapestries outside her home where they were visible to German soldiers occupying Ørland and in international shows where they were widely seen by Fascist supporters. Ryggen had a long and increasingly prestigious exhibition history, from her first exhibition in Lund in 1926 to a solo exhibition at the Stockholm Moderna Museet 1962 to representing Norway in the 1964 Venice Biennial. That same year she also became the first weaver invited to show at Norway’s National Annual Exhibition of the Visual Arts. She has been the subject of a major solo exhibition almost every decade since her death in 1970. Despite these accomplishments, scholarship on Ryggen, particularly outside the Nordic countries, remains scant. However, recent prominent exhibitions, like her inclusion in dOCUMENTA (13) and a 2015 solo exhibition at Oslo’s Nasjonalmuseet, have highlighted the longevity of her legacy and a renewed resonance of her work with contemporary artists and curators working in textile as well as those interested in the individual artist as figure of resistance.

This work, among the most thorough examination of the artist’s life available in English, examines how working on a loom shaped and was shaped by Ryggen’s life and practice, and how the artist radicalized weaving for political ends.