Hannah Ryggen announces her presence even as you emerge into the space up the stairs. The quality of sound is changed, the 15 enormous tapestries dampening the acoustics, making the cavernous space more intimate. Unlike the previous occupant, Rose Finn-Kelcey who was a magpie experimenting with all media, Ryggen is an expert at one craft, weaving. Though having said that, she did also card the wool, spin it, dye it with natural dyes mostly collected from the landscape, and personally engage in all the aspects of producing her textiles. It's an unlikely medium for the strong political dissent she voices, but clearly it suited her, and she makes this traditional, quiet, feminine craft her own.
We meet her first at home with her husband and daughter, in a domestic setting. Born in
Hannah and Hans were strong socialists. Isolated in their rural setting, with no electricity, a smallholding, a small child, and art to produce, they were nevertheless very aware of the changing political landscape and rise of fascism in the 1930s. They read Dagbladet daily, with themes and photos making their way into the tapestries. Hannah's portraiture was exceptionally accurate and recognisable, despite the restrictions of the medium. She didn't draw plans for the tapestries, holding the design in her head for the months it took to work, and producing works with a balanced and pleasing composition across 18 feet or so, sometimes working with the picture the right way round, sometimes at right angles. When you consider that the loom requires the portion that is worked to be rolled up, it is frankly amazing she didn't sketch either on paper or on the warp threads.
Much of the exhibition shows works from WWII: Hitler farting oak leaves, Hans interred and drawing portraits of Nazis, political prisoners being dragged over swastikas. But Hannah Ryggen managed to feel "rage without despair". She depicts her own family in a boat of roses, political prisoners rescued by fair ladies on horseback, and love (not a wafty sort of love but a passionate heartbreaker of an emotion, complete with anatomical heart) withstanding. After the war she protested against NATO and rearmament, and the war in
In the smaller spaces there are two lovely extras: a documentary from 1963 (in Norwegian but with added English subtitles) with Hannah talking from her seat at the loom. And there's a different snapshot of her in her 'Self-Portrait' painted in oils in 1914. Perhaps it's youth, but somehow the painting loses something in its realism. The real Hannah is the one shining out from the warp and the weft.