Norwegian tapestry artist Frida Hansen achieved critical acclaim in 1900 when she won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. International medals for tapestry are hard to imagine over one hundred years later but the fact that Olympic athletes from that same year were awarded paintings rather than medals at least partially illustrates the uniqueness of that moment.
Hansen was already an accomplished artist known for ambitious and exquisite tapestries. A single mother, she founded her own lucrative pictorial tapestry studio and natural dye laboratory and executed tapestry commissions ab ovo usque ad mala, performing the original life drawings, dyeing, and weaving.
At the exposition, in addition to Eiffel’s tower, Hansen would have no doubt visited the theater of Loie Fuller, a stand-alone, one-woman performance venue at the fair. The theater’s façade included multiple images of Fuller dancing in bas-relief and was topped with a statue of her.
A pioneer of art nouveau, Loie Fuller was an American-born dancer, chemist, inventor, and out lesbian who performed astonishing, swirling multimedia shows. The most popular performer in Paris until Josephine Baker, Fuller’s style involved hundred-yard silk costumes illuminated with arrays of projected colored lights. Fuller’s movements, which evoked the natural world, and her technological research that led to ingenious stage equipment of her own design made her a sensation in both artistic and scientific circles. A close friend of Marie Curie, Fuller held the patents on her costumes and colored gels that wouldn’t melt in front of projecter bulbs, among other innovations.
It is not clear whether the two women actually met, but undeniably the characters portrayed in Hansen tapestries undergo a pivotal change after the Paris fair. In the gold-medal tapestry Melkeveien (Milky Way) (1898), the celestial band is held up by a sorority of homogenous and near-somnolent angelic figures gliding forward above a band of Hebrew text, each modestly covering her bosom with one arm. In contrast, Salomes Dans (Salome’s dance) (1900)—incidentally, Salome was also the theme of Fuller’s performance—and Libellenes Dans (dance of the dragonflies) (1901) show a diverse community of women. Either as an assembly of goddesses or chorus line of dancers, Hansen’s new, overlapping bodies fully inhabit the space, their breasts displayed to the sunshine. In Libellenes Dans, even more unusual in Hansen’s work is the shirtless minstrel in the foreground plucking a harp that echoes the form of his pyramidal hairdo. Dragonfly wings, a common theme in art nouveau, grow from the women’s shoulders and fantastical capes billow out like the costumes of Fuller. The depictions of gypsy skirts and imagery could be considered a bold artistic move given the prejudice and even state-sponsored persecution of Norwegian Gypsy women in Hansen’s lifetime.
Another less obvious influence of her experience in Paris is a kind of luminosity that enters the tapestry. Like the dance performances of Loie Fuller, light and transparency became incorporated as active design elements. The image/object status of a hanging textile was expanded by leaving exposed warp and strategic holes that allowed light to pass through. These “transparent” tapestries essentially enabled two images to appear: a vertical pictorial one and a second, silhouetted object image of the tapestry as projected onto the floor—the latter often lost today as the delicate nature of some of these antique tapestries require them to be displayed flat. Later Hansen tapestries include images from her rose and natural dye garden; elaborate borders in a kind of framing that seems to reference Third Pompeian style; and small, purely abstract sections that resemble Clyfford Still paintings.
Her reluctance to participate in the wave of artistic efforts in the service of Norwegian nationalism excluded her from institutional support. Hansen did, however, fabricate highly nationalist, Norse-myth motif tapestries for her friend Gerhard Munthe, an artist who preferred painting to tapestry and who considered Hansen to be the greater talent. These works hang in the Slottet, the Norwegian royal palace, in Oslo. The specific hallmarks of Munthe are harder to identify. Many of his tapestries bear an uncanny resemblance to early Walt Disney films such a Snow White, while others look more like the pixelated characters from contemporary video games like Minecraft.
The international and multicultural motifs, female mysticism, and material experimentation found in Hansen’s artwork were successful means of subverting patriarchal power in her time. But carrying the burden of change came at a cost, and her efforts were all but forgotten until recently. Artists and curators have taken new interest in her work, and it’s fitting, in the light of her chosen medium, that today the word “tapestry” is a common metaphor for cultural diversity.
Travis Boyer is a New York–based artist, curator, and textile educator.