This is the twelfth article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Frida Hansen was born into a rich family in Stavanger, Norway, the 8th of March 1855. At a young age she was encouraged to study painting and drawing with well established artists, among them the painter Kitty Kielland who was well-known in Paris as well as in her own country. At 18, Frida went abroad for further studies, but as she was already engaged to a local businessman, she married the year after. The sudden death of her father put her husband in the leading position of the family trading firm: Køhler & Co. At the elegant family villa in Hillevåg outside Stavanger she created a wonderful garden, known for all its roses and exotic plants, peacocks and parrots, and an aquarium with rare fishes and turtles. The garden was open to the public and she and her husband also build a school for the children of their employees. Life was great and she gave birth to two daughters and a son.
Then tragedy struck. As a result of the world economic crisis in the 1870’s (known as “The long depression”) Køhler & Co went bankrupt in 1883 and their properties were lost. Frida’s husband went abroad for work and she moved with her mother, children and sister to a flat in downtown Stavanger. Within the next two years she lost her son and one of her daughters. Left with nearly nothing to support life, she opened an embroidery shop in town, and that should prove to be the start of a new and fantastic career, that would bring her both national and international fame. One day an old traditional tapestry was brought to her shop for reparation. She got exited, and soon she started to collect knowledge from local women in the countryside that practised the old weaving techniques. She learned how to use plants for colouring the wool. In 1890 she opened her first atelier in Stavanger for “Handwoven Norwegian Tapestries” and two years later she established herself in Kristiania (Oslo) with a textile factory. In addition, she gave courses in weaving and worked as a consultant.
In 1895 she went abroad again, first to Germany and then to Paris for further studies. The “New style”, known as Jugend or Art Nouveau, was everywhere and would have a big influence on her works to come. Back in Kristiania, she and Randi Blehr, a known feminist, established in 1897 what would later be called “The Norwegian Tapestry Weaving Mill”, with twenty employees. That same year Frida obtained patent for the technique of transparent weaving, more fit for curtains and portieres than for tapestries.
In 1898 they participated in the big Bergen Exhibition, where Frida showed her great and later well-known work “The Milky Way”: Six women dressed in white, walking diagonally over a dark blue starry sky, holding a veil of stars – our galaxy, the Milky Way. The Hebrew text is from Genesis 1:15: “And let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth. And it was so”.
In 1900 the Norwegian Tapestry Weaving Mill won a gold medal at the world Exhibition in Paris, and four years later, Frida built her own villa with a studio in Betsum, Kristiania.
In 1905 Frida created her big tapestry “Semper Vadentes”, with a Latin text, in translation: “Always suffering, never resting. Away from the cradle, you in life, into eternity, oh Lord”. It was exhibited in The Saloon in Paris in 1906, and then she was elected as an associated member of Sosiete National des Beaux-Arts.
Museums all over Europe now lined up for obtaining her works for their collections, but Norway, eager for building a national identity after hundreds of years under the reign of Denmark and then Sweden, did not think her works “Norwegian” enough. Even then, she received the “King’s Order of Merit” in gold in 1915.
Frida Hansen continued her impressive creative process until she died in 1931, the 12th of March.
When modernism entered the art scene all over Europe, her works went into oblivion and only decades later was she brought into the light again.
Text: Martin Haarr