‘Beauty belongs to the people’

Elisabeth Haarr, this year’s Festival Exhibitor at Bergen Kunsthall, thinks we know far too little about textiles and the place they hold in the cultural history of the world.

Elisabeth Haarr. Photo: Kobie Nel.

Elisabeth Haarr’s textile art constitutes a landmark in Norwegian culture. In it we see our recent history unfold, and in it we see important features of the art institution evolve. With her central position as an artist, teacher, and organiser, there is no avoiding Haarr for anyone wishing to sum up how the legacy of 1960s and 1970s radicalism still affects us today. Initially working with abstract tapestries, she moved on to more concrete figurations in the 1970s, and subsequently experimented with different materials and techniques in the 1980s and 1990s.

Haarr had her debut in 1968, meaning that her practice extends across more than fifty years. The 2021 Festival Exhibition follows in the wake of other exhibitions that celebrate artists with a long-standing foothold in the crafts, such as Tone Vigeland in 2014 and Jan Groth in 2017. But whereas Vigeland and Groth work with formal elements, Haarr is an explicitly political artist who works with representational techniques combining images and text. This is not to say that Haarr is a propagandist in any sense, but her political involvement has been – and is – deeply embedded in her art, a fact that also informs this conversation.

What are your thoughts about being chosen as the official featured festival artist? I expect you are tired of the discussion, but I am still programmatically obliged to go into this whole issue about the position of textile art within the wider art field.

Well, I am not the first official festival exhibitor to work with textiles, but it has been quite a struggle to win respect and acclaim as a visual artist on a par with other forms of visual and artistic expression. And that has to do with the fact that those who work with textiles are mostly women. Here, as in all other areas of life, there is a difference between men and women; it’s a sad business, but that’s just the way it is.

Were it not for the fact that the National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design bought our work at the behest of then-director Jan-Lauritz Opstad, I and a number of other artists of my generation would not have survived as artists at all. I would say that the National Museum has a big gap to fill as far as textile art is concerned. Even if they are making acquisitions now, there was very little left for them to buy when they looked in my direction. By that point, the Trondheim museum had bought up much of it.

Not having your works bought is one thing, but then you also have the fact that some works have quite simply disappeared. Artists cannot provide free storage space for the future, even if you know that what you are doing is ever so good. It is quite possible that a lot of excellent material has been lost along the way. And one thing is certain: the museums do not have the kind of overview they ought to have of textile art in Norway. As I have said a hundred times before: textile art is Norway’s contribution to world art.

Elisabeth Haarr, De løyerlige familier (The ridiculous families), 1975–1977. Wool, synthetic fabric, and metal. Photo: Frode Larsen.

The group of young textile artists to which you belonged, who wanted to work with representational images, had to fight to win their way into the institution and to be judged according to the criteria you felt were appropriate.

We had to fight to get our own jury at The Autumn Exhibition. Before that, we had to submit our work and be assessed as painters. I joined the Young Artists’ Society [UKS] in 1968, I guess, and then we started the textile group in UKS around 1970. We demanded our own jury in the UKS, we wanted our own board member in the UKS, we worked to get our own jury for The Autumn Exhibition, our own committee for acquisitions for the National Gallery – the present day National Museum – and we wanted the academy to offer a programme on textile art. So we entered into negotiations with what was then called the “Board of Visual Artists” [Bildene Kunstneres Styre] to get our own jury to assess our submissions for The Autumn Exhibition. We finally got that in 1976. I was part of that negotiating committee for the first two years. At the time, I remember proudly and happily writing on my CV: “Rejected at the Autumn Exhibition this year and that,” until we got our own jury.

But then, the reason for the exclusion was quite clear. I remember that the head of the Board of Visual Artists at the time, Rino Harveg, said it quite openly: “We can’t have all these curtains at The Autumn Exhibition!” We’d take up too much space from the others – from the men! It was about competition, about the battle for money and attention. When you get right down to it, it’s always about money. All this stuff about gender, it’s just a dupe, a stand-in to help keep things in place. Actually, it’s about money.

Your generation has built institutions, and you have gained access. On the one hand, this can be seen as a victory, including for textile art, which is now recognised as the equal of other modes of artistic expression. But at the same time, I think that for you – who were fighting for your own jury – something is also lost: the specialisation in a particular set of material and technical concerns.

I think it’s silly that the art academies have a single education programme for textiles which is supposed to cover the craft aspect and fine art aspects alike. From what I know of the programmes in both Bergen and Oslo, this means that the pictorial aspect suffers. I don’t want to go into the discussion we had in the 1980s about “what is craft?” and all that nonsense. It’s all art. But there is a difference between how you work and think if you want to work with the pictorial aspect, and how you work and think when you want to go in the direction of crafts. Now, there are probably many in the textile field who completely disagree with me, but I don’t give a damn.

While it may not be an actual trend, we certainly see quite a lot of textile art being produced among young artists today. Is that something you are actively responding to?

Well, “actively” may be overstating the case. I would like to see much more of it than I do, but I live in Kristiansand and I’m not the sort who likes to look at things online. But I must say I think that a lot of good textile art is being made today and I think the range is very wide. It is exciting to see where textile art will go. Some of it is really fresh and vibrant, and some of it is beautiful and low-key and lovely. And the fact that someone brought in the low-key element I think is very good.

Elisabeth Haarr, Frustrasjonsteppe (Frustration blanket) 1982. Nylon, plastic, and polyester, B: 130 cm. From The Festival Exhibition 2021 at Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

What is your outlook on feminism as it pertains to your early art versus how you work today and the issues that interest you now?

Well, it’s a fact that the textile artists entered the scene and started making noise at about the same time as the modern women’s struggle emerged. Obviously, being concerned with the women’s cause when you are young is quite different from when you are old. But there are certain things that I think are still very important, and that we have not achieved. Firstly, I think it is very sad that we have gotten this word, “equality.” It sits on top of everything, like a lump of butter that smooths over the differences that are actually there. So I like to use the term women’s struggle, or women’s emancipation instead. I don’t even think that there is much point in this idea of us being exactly equal. We are two genders, at least, and we are different. For example, women give birth to children, and I think it will be a long time before men are able to do that.

I never want anyone to go through what I did. I had my first child while attending the School of Arts and Crafts, and a month after the kid was born, the kid and I went to school together. Also, I’m all for a five-hour workday. You noticed I said five hours? And that should be the normal working day, not just for parents of young children, but for everyone.

Frustrasjonsteppe (Frustration blanket, 1982), a well-known work of yours, is very much about this struggle with everyday life. What does this work represent to you today?

I think it’s still relevant and valid today. But at the same time it is a historical document, because it is this huge, smothering housewife blanket. It’s about getting out of the kitchen, out to work, and I still think that is very important: Don’t be shackled to the stove. Never again.

There are some who are beginning to romanticise life as a housewife. God help me, what a prison! They don’t know what they are talking about. But the general societal tendencies have put much greater pressure on individuals in society today compared to when I was young. It has to do with the fact that capitalism has become tougher.

You say that images, the pictorial, have been central to your approach to textiles. Looking back at your body of work, has there been a development in how you have approached your subject matter?

I have had to change the way I work several times due to physical problems. I stopped weaving in 1983. Then I had to just sit tight for a while and ask myself: “How should I express myself now?” I had to experiment a lot, learn a lot by trial and error, messing around before I started embroidering. Now I have moved on to work with more three-dimensional things. And the way you work also changes the imagery, of course. Working with tapestry involves a different kind of imagery than working with embroidery and banners, or with three-dimensional things.

I still sew, but my hands are getting worse and worse. I try to turn that into an advantage, turning a bad thing into a good thing. Instead of sewing very neat, small stitches, I sew large, shaky stitches. There’s a different kind of vulnerability to that. This also has to do with the image aspect, with the pictorial element. The crooked stitches can be more expressive than the neat and tidy little stitch. I try to take advantage of my limitations, and I actually think I’ve succeeded.

Elisabeth Haarr, Bleak Blonde, 2014, Silk shot at with machine gun and run over by tanks by His Majesty The King’s Guard, H 300 cm. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

What about the restrictions inherent in the medium of textile? How did you approach them while learning the craft?

Answering that would take a whole book. First of all, I don’t think there are any restrictions. There is no limit. I received a very good and thorough education, but we were not allowed to weave tapestries until the last year of school. So I wove two tapestries while at school, and then my graduation piece. And then, at the same time as I had to set myself up with a workshop and children, I had to start researching pictorial tapestry and pictorial modes of expression, because I had not had the opportunity to do so at school. This aspect has followed me ever since – trying to research the various modes of expression I am working with. For example, I have recently tried to simplify things a lot, using fewer and fewer elements and devices. But even though I simplify things, there’s always more. It never ends, and I hope I get terribly old because it’s so much fun.

What is this desire to simplify about?

Well, it’s probably about seeing how far I can stretch things. I could have gone the other way, I suppose, but I don’t think it is in my nature. I guess it has something to do with who you are as a human being. I like to sort things, imposing some kind of system on them. Also, it is interesting to see how far you can pare back a thing or how long you can work with a thing before it becomes uninteresting.

Is there some connection between the aesthetic strategy you are describing here and the political aspects of your art?

Well, I don’t know about that. [Laughter] I think there’s a lot of politics involved there, but it’s very much about women’s things. What I do is very much about caring and nurturing. Also, I have gradually become interested in the fact that I am old. I want to show how things break down and age, presenting this as something other than terrible.

You belong to a strong generation of feminists who, on the one hand, wanted to revive traditional crafts while also fighting to enter arenas dominated by men without having to be burdened with inherited ideas about ‘women’s interests’.

I’m among those who think it’s very sad that the women’s movement has been so interested in welding, and so little in Selbuvott mittens. I think they should have been interested in Selbuvott patterns. You shouldn’t just throw the things that ladies have been good at on the scrapheap, and I think that’s what’s been done to a large extent. Among radical women, you’ll see a great deal of ignorance about what women have been doing through the ages, and what they can do. We know far too little about our own cultural history and too little about textiles and the place they hold in the cultural history of the world. Textiles are one of the legs on which human development rests. Without the needle, humans would not have survived. The sewing needle was the first tool that we humans created, enabling men to go out hunting without freezing to death. You should never knit or sew if you don’t think it’s fun. But seeing yourself as part of such a long history is bloody great. You get so proud of your gender. You feel so proud and impressed by what others have done. Sheep and textiles are such important parts of our cultural history.

Elisabeth Haarr, Tangerine Dream, 1988. Dyed, handspun and handwoven silk, silk thread, 225 x 300 cm. Photo: Eline Mugaas.

I was wondering if you say something about the political and artistic struggle of which you were a part in the 1970s in connection with scenes associated with the AKP (The Workers’ Communist Party). This is quite a mythical chapter of Norwegian history, and while most people think they know what it’s about, the reality is often far more nuanced and interesting than we think. I am thinking especially of what I have seen described as a divide between Bergen and Oslo.

There was this article in the newspaper Klassekampen [Class Struggle] in 1974 or 1975. I don’t remember who wrote it, nor exactly what it was about. But it more or less said that if you didn’t show fists and fighting workers in your pictures, you were making petit bourgeois art. Those of us in Bergen totally disagreed with that. So there was a certain amount of external discussion in Klassekampen between some people from Oslo and some from Bergen. But there were also internal discussions on the subject. There were very heated discussions where some in Oslo believed that Socialist Realism was the only appropriate form of art for anyone wanting to engage the working class. Did you ever hear such nonsense! I get all steamed up just at the thought.

We believed that all art that was good was the art of the people. I mean, claiming that if you happen to paint red squares, you’re suddenly a petit bourgeois arsehole? Of course people can take pleasure in red squares, or blue ones for that matter, if they are done well. Beauty belongs to the people. And all that is good belongs to the people. That’s one of the reasons why we have museums, so that people can see that this is ours, too.

Those of us in Bergen held major seminars on this issue, talking about what was going on in the Soviet Union, where an incredible amount of exciting things happened in art until the writers’ congress in 1934 where Maxim Gorky declared that Socialist Realism was the only way to go. Then they started putting artists in concentration camps and shooting and torturing them. Understanding this is an important political issue. And at the same time, it was quite marvellous to get to know all the fantastic art being created before 1934, not least at the very beginning of the revolution.

This concluding question is somewhat related to these discussions about the freedom of art: What role does humour play in your art?

I’ve probably been tongue-in-cheek about several things I’ve made. I think that some people may have seen me as very serious. And I have wanted to point out injustice. Sometimes I’ve done so in very small print and sometimes I have done it in huge, blazing letters. In fact, I would say that overall, I have mostly done it in very small print.

Elisabeth Haarr. Photo: Kobie Nel.