Some artists build a career overnight. Others never get to have a career at all. The Swedish artist Ulla Rosen Winbladh Culioli (1928–2012) devoted her entire life to making colourful tapestries filled with intricate creatures, symbols, and stories. But no galleries or art museums wanted to go near them. The intellectual circles in which she moved in Paris, with personalities like Louis Althusser, were only interested in her person. Yet, she continued to embroider her wall hangings, day in and day out. She no longer needed the outside world; she had created her own. She died in 2012 without ever having exhibited her work.
But, sometimes, time is the best architect. Ten years after Rosen Winbladh Culioli’s death, gallerist Odile Ouizeman, in the Marais district in Paris, has just opened the doors to the first exhibition of her work. Ouizeman was familiar with the artist, having come into contact with her work in the 1990s, and when the pandemic arrived, she began looking into her again. She travelled to the artist’s home in Corsica and found an ocean of black sacks filled with tapestries and collages in the basement. She immediately decided to do an exhibition.
It was raining and I had a bad cold, but my friend, the curator Christopher Yggdre, insisted on taking me to the opening. How often do I come into contact with deceased and unknown artists who moved within the same French-Nordic-Eastern European cultural triangle as I do? Christopher also reminded me how much I love stories about overlooked underground artists who are only given their due by posterity.
The first tapestry, hanging at the gallery entrance like a Communist Party banner, looked like a revelation when lit by the sun that had just peeked out from behind the clouds. So much life and movement! Such strange figures! A carnival parade of wolf men with spears accompanies a princess in a chariot pulled by a horse, who seems to want to devour a sun that is rolling towards them, with the stars behind it, just below a castle. The background is red. Red and yellow flowers pop out from the black ground. The work is called L’Archange protégeant la ville assiégée (The Archangel protects the attacked city, 1962). A sketch further away in the gallery space shows that the work was also supposed to contain the Grim Reaper. He is gone in the wall hanging, as if art has conquered death. The gallery owner let me touch the tapestries, and excitedly told me about how the artist used to buy the wool yarn and the coarse linen burlap at Marché Saint Pierre.
She also told me about Rosen Winbladh Culioli’s eventful life: she was placed in foster care at the age of 3, when her father (who was the manager of a small electricity factory) went bankrupt and her mother was admitted to a sanatorium, where she died. The artist’s childhood was marked by poverty and grief. At the age of 15, she joined the Red Cross and accompanied the white buses that rescued thousands of people from the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. She saw mass graves and corpses lying along the roads; during that time she learned both to speak German and how to negotiate with human lives.
Rosen Winbladh Culioli’s works contain mummy-like figures that appear to be resurrected from the earth. These are people who have long been forgotten, but who, in her cosmogony, are allowed to continue living – albeit in stylised form. They are connected to both heaven and earth. Many of them are in a foetal position, crawling or giving birth to a new humanity, like the Vitruvian Man-spreading frog. The Yggdrasil tree, the world axis that holds everything together, is a frequent symbol, as are masks, animals, and plants of all kinds. They seem to live in an eco-conscious symbiosis where everything is connected to everything, a hodgepodge equal parts hilarious, dark, and tortured.
The first thing that occurred to me are the Eastern European folk tales that I devoured as a child in Romania, where the good guys often turned out to be evil and vice versa – a far cry from the black and white world of the Brothers Grimm. After a while, I started noticing South American and African influences. How easily she moved between different cultures and mythologies, how close she must have been to her inner life! I was reminded of Carl Jung’s magic formula: “Those who look out dream. Those who look in wake up.” And when you’ve woken up, all you need is a large dose of integrity.
Rosen Winbladh Culioli was never educated, hated the bourgeoisie, smoked like a chimney, and refused to wear high-heeled shoes. She was also active in the liberation of prisoners during the Pinochet regime, worked with orphans in the North Pole, was a waitress on ships, and took care of students who fled the Greek military junta in the 1960s. Her worldview sometimes appears in small delicious slogans that recall Gauguin’s famous triptych of questions: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” But in her case, the big questions have been replaced with more low-key existential buzzwords, such as “Concentration, Tolérence, Diversité, Reflexion.” We know nothing about which artists she really loved; she did not socialise with any. But in the Swedish context she would probably have found affinities with artists such as Hannah Ryggen, Siri Derkert, and maybe even Öyvind Fahlström, although none of these created bridges between the mythological world and politics with the same colourful sensuality.
She seems to have never really liked living in France. The gallery owner and the artist’s children, who were also at the opening, said that she missed Sweden very much, but that she nevertheless chose to never return. Life was supposed to move forward, not backward. For this reason, she never taught her children Swedish, and although she spoke several languages, she spoke very rarely and was ashamed of her accent. At the same time, she married one of the greatest linguists of the time, Antoine Culioli, who died in 2018. He is said to have told his children: “Your mother has no aptitude for happiness.” It’s a fateful statement, which made me hungry for more.
I looked for answers in Hommage à la culture française (Homage to French culture,1980), where a woman melting into a chair can be seen as a cynical comment on what French culture does to women, turns them into objects. Her chest holds a face that seems to be spitting into a funnel. The floor is chequered, reminiscent of Freemason aesthetics. The woman as equal parts slave and master in the culture. No wonder Rosen Winbladh Culioli became a restless melancholic. Had she been active today, she would definitely have been involved in both the environmental and human rights movements because she brought together not only pictorial worlds, but also people – despite her shyness – like a nomadic Penelope who made the world her loom.