Remembering the Female Pioneer of Artistic Weaving: The Legacy of Frida Hansen
by: Anna Backman Rogers , December 13, 2021
by: Anna Backman Rogers , December 13, 2021
MAI’s Anna Backman Rogers meets Anne Sommerin Simonnæs to honour and celebrate the legacy of Frida Hansen, the Norwegian mother of creative weaving.
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs works as a curator at the National Museum in Oslo with textiles and costume as the main area. She has for several years helped develop the permanent collection presentation for design and handicrafts in the new museum, which can finally open its doors in June 2022. Simonnæs has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oslo and has extensive experience from textile history and museum activities over many years.
MAI: Could you tell our readers here at MAI something about Frida Hansen? I know she is well-known within Scandinavia broadly speaking. Could you tell us something about her background, and her training?
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs: Frida Hansen was one of the first Norwegian female artists to experience great international attention. With strong commitment and courage, she resumed and further developed the Norwegian weaving tradition towards the end of the 19th century and was an important representative of art nouveau and symbolism. She was a pioneer at a time when the women’s game in Europe was on the rise.
Frida Hansen was born in 1855 in Stavanger, a small town that experienced economic growth and a growing population. Already as a child she dreamed of becoming a painter and was taught by, among others, the artist Kitty Kielland. Raised in a wealthy family, Frida Hansen had a good network around her and the opportunity to travel abroad for inspiration, but when she married as a 19-year-old she had to let go of the dream of her own artistic life. After a few years, the great economic crash hit Norway and the family’s trading house went bankrupt. This forced a new reality for Hansen who had to leave her magnificent home with the exotic garden she had so imaginatively laid out.
She started an embroidery shop and soon came across some old clothes from Telemark that needed to be repaired. The traditional fabrics with Indigenous patterns fascinated her deeply. In record time, she learned the old weaving traditions and in the years that followed, she established a new basis for a further development of Norwegian textile art. By renewing old weaving techniques, she created a completely distinctive textile idiom, adapted to contemporary art.
MAI: I know she was a teacher as well as a practitioner. Were these two practices connected for her? Did she have a particular philosophy attached to her teaching?
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs: It was very important for her to share her knowledge with others. In 1892 she moved to Kristiania (Oslo) and established a studio and workshop where an extensive production of marketable textiles was carried out by her assistants. In addition to being an independent artist, she taught weaving and ensured that more women were given a profession and a livelihood. It’s hard to say if she had a special philosophy, but it was obvious that she made a tremendous effort to keep the old craft weaving traditions alive. Hansen’s ideas about protecting handcraft-based products also coincided with the ideas propounded by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which emerged partly as a reaction to industrialisation’s rapid expansion.
MAI: I first saw one of Frida Hansen’s weavings in an exhibition devoted to Japonisme at the National Museum in Oslo. I think this must have been in around 2017, but I cannot be sure. I was just overwhelmed by the intricacy, skill and beauty of her work. Two things struck me especially though: her use of colour, and her use of ‘negative space’ within the weaving where the warp is visible and forms an integral part of the image. Could you tell us about what you think defines her work as both deeply connected to traditional techniques, yet utterly unique?
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs: The interesting thing about her is precisely this: that she develops the traditional craftsmanship, stays informed about the art expressions of the time, and yet creates something completely outstanding. It was important to her that tapestries should not be woven paintings but have an independent artistic expression. She was technically proficient and mastered the entire process from dyeing yarn to drawing and preparing cardboard on a full scale, and was also responsible for the transfer to the loom. With a clear vision for colour use, she sought old recipes for plant colouring and experimented with her own colour palette. “For me, form is first and foremost the means of bringing out the colours. The colours are like the Sun in my Art. Therefore, the shape often must conform to provide the colours that I absolutely want in a collection,” she once said.
In 1897 Frida Hansen developed her transparent weaving method. It involved alternating between woven and unwoven passages. The unwoven sections create positive or negative space, depending on the colour contrast and the light.
Interestingly enough the woven passages became as important as the unwoven passages. The ornamentation of the pattern stands out more clearly on account of the unwoven passages. With this decorative technique she was able to let her love of flowers and organic plants unfold with striking lushness. The airy and elegant fabrics became very popular and could be used as room dividers and porters for doors.
MAI: What influenced her as an artist? Do you see abiding themes and motifs in her work? And if so, how did these develop over her lifetime?
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs: Hansen found it natural to draw inspiration from national as well as international artistic currents. With in-depth knowledge of the craft, she was eventually able to compose her own motifs which she simplified and adapted to the textile materials. The artistic currents of the time became significant sources of inspiration, and she was influenced by a great diversity of traditions. In the beginning she used older Norwegian textiles and patterns for inspiration, then the impulses came from mainland European art from the late 1890s. Orientalism made its mark on European art from the mid-1850s onwards, as impulses from India, Egypt, and Japan.
Japan had opened its borders in 1854, which had a significant influence on European art, and influenced Frida Hansen. The inspiration is shown in simple compositions with flowers, plant life, birds, and animals. Wavy alignment and stylisation were the basis for the development of Art Nouveau, which also embraced the organic and biological. Biblical, literary, and mythological texts also formed the basis for Hansen’s tapestries. They do not develop in such a way that one cluster of motifs replaces another. Throughout much of her artistic trajectory, she alternates between different cultural motifs. But we can still say that she excels by depicting the decorative and beautiful by use of flowers, costumes, and strong female figures as main elements.
MAI: Do you see her as a Norwegian artist or a Scandinavian artist? I know that for many artists from this corner of the world, folklore and nature are important themes—do you see her as being part of this movement?
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs: More than Norwegian, or Scandinavian, I would describe her as a citizen of the world. Hansen was influenced by contemporary impulses and events. She came from a resourceful family, but experienced deep tragedy. Thanks to her basic knowledge and courage in life, she developed into an independent artist.
Hansen’s tapestry aroused enthusiasm abroad, but at home she was criticised for not being Norwegian enough. In the time around the dissolution of the union with Sweden, it was politically desirable to reflect our national identity in the decorative arts. Gerhard Munthe’s textile patterns were popular with inspiration from Norwegian folk tales, legends and stories from the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. Frida Hansen was also influenced by the national but was particularly associated with international impulses that stood in opposition to creating a national identity. This was the reason why she was purchased by most major museums in Europe and was only recognised later on by the Norwegian museums.
MAI: That is utterly fascinating. Thank you for telling me that. Do you think Hansen’s work is becoming more widely known again? Are any major exhibitions of her work being planned?
Anne Sommerin Simonnæs: Today she is perhaps more relevant than ever, and we experience a great interest in her work here at the museum, both as an artist and as a human being. In the newly built National Museum in Oslo, which opens to the public in June 2022, we will show several works by her. The new museum also has large, beautiful areas that give us completely new opportunities to show her artistry in the future.
MAI: I’m really looking forward to seeing her work again in 2022. Thank you so much, Anne!
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