Born to a working class Swedish family in 1894, Ms. Ryggen trained as a portrait painter before turning to the loom. On a trip to Dresden, Germany, as a young woman, she immersed herself in the work of Vermeer, Goya and El Greco. She was likewise versed in the art of her own time, making repeat visits to the huge 1914 Baltic Exhibition in Malmo, Sweden, at which paintings by Kandinsky and the German expressionist group Die Brücke were shown. A spirited early self-portrait on display at Oxford shows Ms. Ryggen’s considerable skill as a painter.
Her turn to tapestry, and with it, her interest in craft traditions and the eccentric compositions of medieval art, was explicitly political. A tapestry was a mobile messenger: it could be nimbly rolled up, transported and displayed without sustaining damage as a painting might.
Ms. Ridgway sees Ms. Ryggen as a figure ahead of her time: “She was making her art to contribute to public conversations about equality: hard enough today, but as a woman, then, it was even more so.”
Ms. Ryggen gave almost all of her major tapestries to public institutions, hoping they would be widely seen. After moving to a remote area near Trondheim, Norway, in 1924, she and her husband Hans lived off the land they farmed. Raising sheep for wool, and making her own dyes from local moss, lichen, bark and plants (and the contents of a chamber pot), tapestry freed her from dependence on commercial materials.
Created after a decade of self-education, Ms. Ryggen’s first mature political tapestry “Fishing in the Sea of Debt” (1933), shows starving families drowning in a blood-red fjord while a plump debt-collector’s wife looks on from her picnic blanket. The Great Depression had hit Norway, bringing high unemployment and terrible deprivation. With its strong, roiling colors, and expressionistic style, the work suggests the influence of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Like all of Ms. Ryggen’s tapestries, it was created directly on the loom without preparatory sketches.
To Ms. Ridgway, the curator, the political backdrop against which Ryggen wove her tapestries suggests painful parallels with the present. “Her work was made in the face of rising nationalism in Europe,” Ms. Ridgway said, “racism that played on people’s genuine fears about their economic stability.”
Through close reading of the left-leading newspaper Dagbladet, Ms. Ryggen followed with horror the rise of fascist powers in Europe. The central suite of works in the Oxford exhibition address Nazi atrocities first in Germany, then Norway, and their eventual impact on Ms. Ryggen’s family. In “Death of Dreams” (1936), the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky is pictured imprisoned, shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years later Mr. von Ossietzky was executed. A separate tapestry shows another figure in the German resistance to Nazism, Liselotte Herrmann, who was also executed in 1938.
The extraordinary “6 October 1942” shows the shooting of Henry Gleditsch, the director of Trondheim’s Trondelag Theater. Above a Pietà-like scene of Mr. Gleditsch’s death, Hitler flies through Norwegian skies farting oak leaves as a symbol of German strength. The Ryggen family is seen floating in a boat of roses on the panel to the right: between the two sides stands Winston Churchill in a barricaded tower. Neither love nor military intervention could protect the Ryggen family: two years later Hans was imprisoned.
Toward the end of her life, Ms. Ryggen turned her gaze to the United States. “Blood in the Grass” (1966), the final work in the exhibition, shows President Lyndon Johnson as a scarlet cowboy, a dog at his feet, beside a lawn of tufted green wool, through which seeps a violent red. Johnson’s beagle made headlines after the president had lifted the dog by its ears during a photography shoot. As a contemporary report in The Times noted: “Some authorities on dogs questioned the President’s handling.” In the following days, debate around the incident seemed to eclipse coverage of the Vietnam War.
According to Ms. Ridgway, the news media’s focus on comparatively trivial outrages dismayed the artist. ”She was horrified by reports of the war, and was angry that coverage of the brutal loss of life in another country had been overshadowed by the media focus on the behavior of President Johnson as an individual,” the curator said. Having relied on media sources for inspiration throughout her working life, Ms. Ryggen’s disquiet over the way the president’s public behavior could draw our focus away from more important international issues seems, as with many of the artist’s other concerns, remarkably prescient.