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…