The woman who kept Hitler and Churchill in stitches: Hannah Ryggen Woven Histories review

By Skye Sherwin

Modern Art Oxford
From fascists to freedom fighters to farmyard animals, this staggeringly committed artist made spellbinding tapestries that have lost none of their power or humour

On a wind-blown farm on a remote Norwegian shore, with no running water or electricity, Hannah Ryggen worked utterly from scratch on her anti-fascist tapestries. Spinning wool from her sheep, she dyed it with things she'd found by foraging: birch leaves, bark moss and bog rosemary. Urine, too, was an essential part of this alchemical process, and visitors were asked to leave their donations in a bucket. Using a homemade loom, she started weaving – without preparatory drawings – a design she saw in her head. Before you even get to the end result, the conviction, not to mention the sheer stamina required, is staggering.

What Ryggen created in this far-flung spot, where she lived from the mid-1920s, channelled both current affairs and her day-to-day experience. Modern Art Oxford's survey, subtitled Woven Histories, features a rogue's gallery of political thugs, their faces rendered angular and cartoonish by the horizontal and vertical lines of the weave. In one 1936 work, Hitler, Göring and Goebbels pop up like murderous glove puppets with blood-red faces and hands. Three decades later, Lyndon B Johnson's beagle – for the artist a fluffy media distraction from the Vietnam war – becomes a similarly scarlet hound of hell. In between the monsters are freedom fighters, artist martyrs and Ryggen's own family and farmyard animals.

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