Perhaps the rediscovery and omnipresence of Hannah Ryggen in recent years has something to do with it, but due to the painstaking handiwork reflected in tapestries, I am not used to thinking of them as a particularly immediate or explosive mode of expression. The effort and the process made visible in such works turn them into a special mixture of the intimate and the monumental, which often comes across as a little heavy and insistent. In Synnøve Anker Aurdal’s (1908–2000) works at the Astrup Fearnley, such heaviness is consistently suspended by a dynamism and formal ecstasy so effervescent that it seems to rise out towards you.
Aurdal is quoted in the exhibition pamphlet as having said: “I could not become an artist in any other way than through the threads.” Indeed, there is something about her almost monomaniacal dedication to the thread itself, which resonates in things that hang, undulate, and buckle. Not just the tapestries themselves, which at times tear themselves so far out from the wall that they become sculptures, but also the shapes and figures manifesting themselves in vertical ripples, flames, and hourglass-like echoes in an ongoing struggle with gravity. Most of all, the effect is about the use of colour. Early on, Aurdal abandoned all ascetic notions about natural dyes and gathering the required plants oneself, instead embracing the luminescence and acidity of chemical dyes. Yellow and green frequently appear as accents, especially in her works form the 1990s, accentuating the free-form compositional asymmetry. Larger fields of colour in harmonious or colliding hues also create shapes that appear ever more silhouette-like.
The motivation behind this massive exhibition, numbering nearly fifty works, seems rooted both in Aurdal’s role as a modernist pioneer and in the present-day relevance of her tireless commitment to exploring the loom as an artistic medium. Surprisingly, many of the works on display hail from the museum’s own collection, which is perhaps more generally associated with international pieces of a more masculine persuasion. The fact that Hans Rasmus Astrup collected Aurdal as far back as the 1960s says something either about the collector’s flair or about the artist’s position, even then. It is also tempting to see this highlighting of Aurdal as a statement signalling that the arrival of Director and Curator Solveig Øvstebø has ushered in a fresh outlook on the collection and its role.
Otherwise, the exhibition is characterised by a notable trust in the artwork and the public alike. Its title reflects this confidence, bearing only the artist’s name and, quite demonstratively, making no further claims to the power of definition. The installation skirts chronology, highlighting Aurdal’s general themes and investigations more than constructing a biographical narrative. With only few wall texts and headings, no one could accuse the exhibition of being over-communicated. Indeed, not being subjected to the tyranny of communication that often infuses institutions of this magnitude today is a relief. The nudging and wayfinding aspects are instead more architectural in nature, emphasising the sculptural qualities of the works and their frequently vertical orientation. The large hall – always a difficult venue – has been nearly split lengthwise by a new wall, effecting a church-like emphasis on the room’s height and allowing the largest works plenty of space. In fact, I cannot recall seeing this space look so good since Matias Faldbakken filled it with rows of tiled walls (Effects of Good Government in the Pit) in 2017. Moreover, the museum’s at times intrusive architecture is easily outshined by Aurdal’s vibrant works.
Aurdal’s abstractions are first and foremost lyrical in feel, and they appear to arrive at this sensibility through the kind of Romantic outlook on nature often associated with craft textiles (certainly, if one thinks of William Morris and the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement), as well as through Symbolism: there are many suns, globes, and impressions of landscapes here, as is reflected in several titles (The Sun , Hoarfrost , Dream of Jølster , Dream of Iceland, ). The earliest work, Bride with a Crown (1946), was made during the Second World War, when the scarcity of thread prompted the artist to use an appliqué technique. The work has a more traditional and symmetrical distribution of elements across the picture plane. One of the interesting aspects about the role of the tapestry in modernism concerns not only the tension between tradition and engineering, but also the fact that weaving already has the paradigmatic grid structure established as an embedded logic, which is frequently reflected in decorative and rhythmic patterns and geometry. Consequently, asymmetry and free composition must be imagined as the result of strict and careful planning, and not necessarily spontanteous gestures. This changes the mythos of rebellion against tradition. Over the course of the exhibition, it becomes clear how Aurdal has worked with the relationship between depth and surface in different ways by using threads and chains of metal, nylon, wool, and silk that each have different weights and reflect light differently (especially in Copper Tapestry 3 ), and incorporating shapes that gradually detach from the grid and hang like jewellery, masks, or waterfalls of thread (Armour, Gravity, and Seven Samurai [all works, 1973], as well as The Waterfall [1984–89]).
In other words, these works are very different from the disciplined and rhythmic tapestries of Annie Albers (1899–1994), another advocate of textile art whose historical significance has been reassessed and reaffirmed in recent times and who seems a natural choice for making comparisons with Aurdal. Albers arose out of the Bauhaus scene, ran a weaving workshop at the legendary Black Mountain College in the 1930s, and later went on to lecture at Yale. It would be interesting to know whether Aurdal read Albers’s On Weaving (1965) or responded to how Albers pointed out a connection between nomadic architecture and textiles in the concept of “the pliable plane,” but such historical excavations are not undertaken by this exhibition – at least not yet: there are rumours of work being done on a larger monograph on Aurdal and her impact, due for publication later this year.
Apart from the current reappraisal and appreciation of crafts in the atmosphere of new materialism, the momentum of textile art in a Norwegian context seems infused by the feminism of the 1970s, with examples including artists such as Elisabeth Haarr and Brit Fuglevaag, who mediate between a Pop Art validation of consumer objects and the (female) domestic sphere. In this sense, it is interesting that Aurdal’s immediate political references are characterised by a more analytical distance. For example, the frieze-like Women’s Front (1983) was created using exclusively interlacing strips of black and white yarn that are never allowed to amalgamate into any kind of grey. The refusal of shades and gradations is easy to interpret as a deliberate comment, particularly since the artist made very deliberate use of greyscale elsewhere. In Silver Globe (1980), a globe is divided in two by a sharp jagged line. The later series ‘Bureaucrats’ – Just Two Bureaucrats (1994), Even More Bureaucrats (1995), and Party Bureaucrats (1996) – is immediately satirical in a Pushwagnerian way, but here the act of poking fun at conformity also plays on the specifics of the medium in repetition and seriality. The caricatured figures also become a consequence of the loom’s “economy” as a tool, their abstraction an inherent trait of the built-in limitation on details. The cartoon-like and Cubist universe of burlesques steers visually close to both folk art and the pre-classical; for example, some of the later works feature forms that can be recognised as pre-Columbian (Dialogue Black and White and Dynamics I [both 1996], and Dance ).
The anarchic way in which Aurdal connects these elements is a pervasive trait of her art, testifying to an unpretentious openness. Some of her later works increasingly return to the surface, often using bold colours, and it is easy to envision this development as part of a visuality defined by the ever-growing ubiquity of screens. The luminance of these colours, composed out of small squares evoke the displays of a cathode-ray TV set frozen in fluctuating motion (Portrait Bleu ). From the back wall on the museum’s first floor, an eye has taken the place of the sun, shining and looking back at us through a 3×4-metre expanse of grey monochrome rainbows (Eye of Peace, 1998). In what must be one of the artist’s last works, the lines move centripetally inwards in the image plane, playing around with perspective in a manner approaching Op Art.
Of course, there is also an obvious affinity between weaving and the digital realm, one which is emphasised at the Hannah Ryggen Triennial currently on in Trondheim. But the exhibition at Astrup Fearnley has not let itself be lured into this discourse. Instead, a number of poets have been invited to write pieces responding to Aurdal’s work, and their creations have been collected in a book due to be published in June. Poetry was a strong source of inspiration for Aurdal, who would even craft text fragments and quotes into her tapestries. New materialism or not, the pervasive corporeal enthusiasm engendered by Aurdal’s works may be a manifestation of the present dehydration of the sensory apparatus and thirst for the haptic and comprehensible – ultimately, all these works can be unravelled, revealed, and transformed into threads that are still connected – and that’s why it’s uplifting to experience an exhibition that nurtures the encounter with the material as both concrete and auratic.