I wanted to revive and renew traditional Norwegian weaving and make it available to the world both as a decorative art and as a source of employment. Thus began my life’s work, which has occupied my mind, my creativity and my life.
Frida Hansen (1855–1931) was born into a Stavanger merchant family. In her youth, her ambition was to become an artist. She took a few drawing classes with Kitty Kielland and Johan Bennetter, but when she married at the age of 18, her artistic ambitions were put on hold. When an economic crash hit Stavanger in 1882, wiping out the family business and fortune, she had the opportunity to take up art again. She opened an embroidery shop and subsequently began exploring old Norwegian weaving traditions, which she developed and renewed.
Hansen was active chiefly from the 1890s through to 1914 – the Art Nouveau period. Her European breakthrough came when she exhibited at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, garnering glowing reviews and some important sales. Major museums of applied art from several European countries purchased tapestries and transparent hangings. Hansen developed the transparent technique by deliberately leaving out some of the warp threads in the weave, creating a transparent effect as light penetrated the open areas.
Frida Hansen is seen as having renewed Norwegian tapestry and brought a European approach to Norwegian textile art. The motifs for several of her tapestries, such as Dance of the Dragonflies, Rose Garden and Milky Way, are closely associated with the Art Nouveau movement. She was instrumental in the evolution of fine craft in Norway, founding a tapestry studio, Det norske Billedvæveri.
In general, Hansen wove only her own designs, and she produced only one example of each tapestry. Portières, wall hangings and rugs could be ordered from a book of patterns. Altogether she produced 31 tapestries and about 165 patterns for transparent portières, wall hangings and rugs.
Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929) was born in Elverum and showed an early interest in drawing. He began studying art in 1870, and after completing his studies and spending time abroad, he settled in Sandvika in 1886, where he became a member of the “Lysaker Circle”, a group of artists and intellectuals. In the early part of his career, he painted mainly landscapes. In 1890 he began creating decorative art, and over the years that followed he became a driving force in developing a distinctly Norwegian style of decorative art, reflecting the country’s nature, myths and legends. He drew inspiration from many sources, including Japanese art, medieval Norway and the new decorative art movement in Europe. Munthe’s desire to reinvigorate the applied arts in Norway was inspired by the ideas of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.
Munthe’s breakthrough in decorative art came with the Black-White exhibition of drawings and graphics in Kristiania in 1893, where he exhibited 11 watercolours including Hel-Horse and Daughters of the Northern Lights. Reactions to the works were mixed. The public was bemused by Munthe’s anti-naturalism: the frequently asymmetrical composition and the lack of perspective and detail. Strong colours, bold outlines and stylized motifs, often repeated in rhythmic fashion, were the hallmarks of Munthe’s works. Later, the watercolour images were made into tapestries by Munthe’s wife Sigrun and, from 1894 onward, by the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum weaving studio.