I’m preparing for an afternoon-long seminar on Norwegian weaving at the upcoming Midwest Weavers Conference in St. Paul later this month. I’ve been reading my personal library of books on Norwegian weaving; here are a few of them.
In the past few days I’ve been reading a book about Frida Hansen, the Norwegian tapestry artist who enjoyed acclaim throughout Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. I’ve read several overviews of her life and work, and they all include several main points. (She is included in this good overview of tapestry on the the Norwegian Absolute Tapestry site.) She lived in Stavanger and was wealthy and well-educated; her husband was a successful businessman who went bankrupt; she set up an embroidery business to support her family; and learned to weave. Her beautiful, large Art Nouveau tapestries enjoyed enormous success in Europe but were under-appreciated at home in Norway. In contrast, the artist Gerhard Munthe enjoyed immense popularity with his cartoons for tapestries based on folk tales.
The standard overviews seem static compared to the detail included in the book Frida Hansen: En Europeer i Norsk Tekstilkunst (A European in Norwegian Textile Art), by Anniken Thue. I’m only partway through the book, but I’ve learned two things that have increased my admiration for her. First, she was fearless in her approach to learning to weave and exhibiting her work. Her first tapestry was slammed in a prominent newspaper. And second, during the National Romantic period she was more involved than I realized with reviving the particularly Norwegian form of tapestry.
Frida Hansen’s introduction to weaving fit right in to the national romantic era. She was aware of medieval Norwegian tapestries, as her mother-in-law owned several. As she was admiring them with her brother-in-law, he told her that she should learn to weave. Later, after her husband went bankrupt and went to England to rebuild a business, Frida opened an embroidery business. When a customer brought in a weaving to be repaired, her brother-in-law’s words came back to her and she sought someone to teach her. In 1889 she asked farmers around the district, without success, whether there were any weavers who knew the old techniques. Then she learned of a teacher in Sogn, Kjerstina Hauglum, and Frida traveled north to meet her. Frida wrote afterwards to a friend and supporter, “On my arrival in Lærdal I was convinced from my previous study that I was standing over the old techniques in all their authenticity. One glance at the method was therefor enough, and after I obtained my loom and knew how to prepare it, I traveled home happy with the exchange. When I returned home I began to weave Birkebeinerne at once.” (no online image available)
I admire her confidence! She launched right into an image with many painterly details, and big — 70″ x 94.” As it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as she thought. She ended up embroidering on facial details, and the back side reveals a fold to hide the fact it was quite uneven, either due to uneven warp threads or weft laid in at an angle. In 1890 she displayed that tapestry, along with several “tepper,” which I assume were rutevev, or square-weave coverlets, and two woven room dividers. Her weaving was praised by the head of the Norwegian Handcraft Association as the “Pearl of the Exhibit,” but the tapestry was singled out for criticism in the Aftenposten newspaper by Henrik Grosch, the head of the Arts and Crafts Museum. “However, her skills are insufficient when it concerns the depictions of figures. Here you need much finer and more varied materials, better equipment, and a more flexible and developed technique. With all respect for her diligence and proficiency that is employed in this so-called tapestry . . . it can’t be described as anything but a blunder.” When she was interviewed later in her life, Frida Hansen described that tapestry as just a test piece. At the time, she took the criticism to heart and in an exhibit in Skien the following year she displayed strictly ornamental weavings inspired by old Norwegian coverlets. Throughout the 1890s Frida Hansen worked to promote the development of weaving based on Norway’s strong tapestry tradition. In 1891 she wrote in an article about Norwegian weaving techniques in the Morgenbladet newspaper, “but here is also a rich field to work in: motifs from our sagas and folk tales, fantastic animal and flower forms, ornament and ground-pattern . . . our old weavings, with their patterns and color combinations, should serve as a basis for further development. Therefore there are colors along with patterns and techniques, which for all time will give the Norwegian weavings their distinctive character.”
Perhaps she needed more than one glance when she visited the weaver in Sogn, but Frida Hansen clearly learned from her mistakes, and within a decade won a gold medal at the Worlds Fair in Paris in 1990 for “The Milky Way.”
Below is her tapestry, “I Rosenhavn.” It still has the flavor of Norwegian billedvev, with clear, distinct planes of color, little shading, and a pattern-filled background. I am excited that I will see both these tapestries this summer at the retrospective of Frida Hansen’s work at the Stavanger Kunstmuseum.
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