Frida Hansen’s Southward Tapestry: A Conversation Recap

It was enormously fun to be at the Winter Show at Peter Pap‘s booth to be able to talk with visitors about Frida Hansen’s newly-rediscovered 1903 tapestry, Southward (Sørover).

I was impressed by the range of people who were amazed and interested, from serious collectors, to design professionals, and sparkly-dressed young couples at the opening. Peter Pap’s booth was in a corner location, and sometimes people would walk by, their eyes directed at the pretty porcelains in the booth across the aisle, or down at their phones. If I was near them I would say, “Don’t miss the Norwegian tapestry behind you.” It was fun to see their startled reactions. So many people remarked along the lines of, “Oh my gosh. It’s so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so exquisite.”

I liked to hear about the specific parts that interested them. Viewers were drawn to the central image. They would ask about the story behind the sailing entourage. One man pointed out the power of the juxtaposition of the maidens’ dresses and the fan-shaped waves. The bonnets of the maidens were a favorite. “Look how it’s like you can see through them,” one young woman exclaimed in wonder. “She didn’t have to do that.” And once they moved beyond the central image and began to examine the border, it was like a new round of appreciation. More than one person remarked, “Oh, now I think I like the border best!”

“How long did it take her to weave it?” You can imagine that was a popular question. Frida Hansen wove 31 large pictorial flat-weave tapestries in her life, and between the end of the 1890s until around 1910 she wove at least one very large tapestry like Southward per year. She wove her own tapestries that were her art works–but she had help. She would need help, as she was also designing many other pieces that were woven in the workshop she ran. At the workshop, Den Norske Billedvæveri (The Norwegian Tapestry Workshop), clients could order wall hangings, door draperies, upholstery fabrics, or rugs. This is a rug owned by the Stavanger Art Museum.

Photo: Robbie LaFleur

Her door draperies, or portieres, in transparency technique were popular in Norway and abroad. The transparency technique, woven in wool on a wool warp, featured areas of unwoven threads, creating a beautiful positive/negative effect in varying light conditions.

Frida Hansen. Fantasy Flowers (Fantasiblomster). 1903. From the collection of the Nasjonalmuseet.

Martha Brogan, my friend from graduate school, came down from New Haven to see Southward. Her first comment was, “How are they keeping those dresses together at the sides?” If you look at the maidens, those are pretty racy dresses! She also commented on the variation in the expressive faces, adding, “All the eyebrows are even different.”

There’s a lot of skin showing on the sides of their bodies.

My friend Anne Whidden, of the amazing Swedish Rug Blog, commented that the borders had a Chinese feeling, like cloud paintings. Another visitor commented that the rounded areas reminded her of lily pads on impressionist paintings.

I’m traveling back to Minnesota tomorrow but look forward to the next chapter of the Southward adventure. I hope it is an opening at a museum where people will be able to appreciate this fabulous work by Frida Hansen for generations to come.