Of the artists working in tapestry today, Helena Hernmarck stands without peer. Her work, selected for scores of fine public spaces is seen each year by millions of viewers. For them, these pieces often become the focus and persona of familiar places. That the work seems to belong in place is not an accident: rather, it has “grown” there. The artist adapted her artistic intent to the requirements of the architecture of the space and the nature of the client.
Almost always derived from a local environment, her themes encapsulate the great outdoors—in heroic scale. Her work has withstood the test of time; that is, better than almost all the art fabrics created in the last half century, hers have fared better in aging gracefully. This body of work has the advantage of traditional tapestry hangings, of installing, storing and cleaning easily. But they are not conventional tapestries drawn by artists and executed by artisans. These are modern works with such expression of structure and materials to compensate for spaces perhaps insufficient in these soul-satisfying qualities.
She triumphs over limitations to create an art form that goes beyond craft without losing its durable virtues.
—Jack Lenor Larson
American Crafts Magazine article by Sigrid Wortmann Weltge:
In a remarkable career, Helena Hernmarck has produced an oeuvre of tapestries unsurpassed in visual imagery and technical realization. “Monumental and Intimate: Tapestries by Helena Hernmarck,” her beautifully mounted retrospective at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, was therefore especially welcome, not least because it confirmed the artist’s stature.* Since a major part of her work is located in corporate settings, she has had less name recognition than some fiber artists whose meteoric rise and moments of fame are quickly followed by oblivion. Hernmarck emerges as an artist of steady evolution with a lasting body of work unique in her field.
Hernmarck was born in Sweden in 1941 and educated at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. Her schooling combined the theory of art and aesthetics with the solid, technical expertise associated with the old-world guild tradition. A thorough understanding of weave construction and the loom’s capabilities laid the foundation for her exploration of uncharted territory within the heritage of tapestry weaving. Instead of the Gobelin technique, Hernmarck uses as background a discontinuous plain weave on top of which she hand picks a supplementary pattern weft, according to a grid which at one end totally covers the plain weave (soumac stitch) and allows it to become increasingly exposed. This approach, coupled with her unerring sense of composition and her gift as a colorist, makes Hernmarck’s artistic vision unique in the world of textiles. It is a vision of dualities.
She burst on the scene during the 60s, when fiber art exploded—she had moved to Canada in 1964 and would live there for almost a decade—participating in the prestigious Lausanne Biennales of 1965, ’67, and ’69. But unlike many, she eschewed sculptural forms of expression, adhering instead to pictorial tapestries with their allegiance to the wall. Even then, her works were anything but traditional. Reflecting the iconography of pop culture, Hernmarck’s early black-and-white hangings, resembling gigantic newspaper clippings, reveal great compositional and technical skill. The graininess of cheap newsprint is emphasized by the overshot technique, which enhances the immediacy of the image in a manner akin to but predating computer pixels. Other tapestries of the 60s, such as Newspapers, 1968, a unified design of text and image in a harmonious color palette, are, like so much of her work, a visual tease.
Hernmarck bases her compositions on photographs, rephotographed collages and her own watercolors. It is easy to affix the label photo-realism or trompe l’oeil to her work, but the medium itself, full of surprising surface effects, rejects such classifications. Her tapestries compare neither to the cool similitude of a Richard Estes painting nor to the trompe l’oeil of 18th century wallpaper. If in the end one resorts to such descriptions, one does so reluctantly. She relies on optical illusion, the laws of perspective, skillful shading and artistic manipulation. A comparison with Renaissance intarsia artists, who, working with inlaid wood, manipulated surfaces with exquisite finesse, would not be amiss. At once realistic and illusionistic, Hernmarck constantly challenges the viewer’s perception. (“The mystery of plastic creation is based upon the dualism of the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional,” Hans Hoffmann once said.) Hernmarck’s clear, crisp, visual representations, seen from a distance, might for a moment obscure her medium. But as one comes closer, the illusion dissolves with the image itself. Each thread, individual or bundled, warp or weft, turns into nothing but surface and structure.
It is the dichotomy in Hernmarck’s work that sets it apart from the expected. The sheer size of her pictoral tapestries cannot but conjure up the masterpieces of the Middle Ages. Indeed there are certain parallels. Her impeccable craftsmanship alone puts Hernmarck in league with the great weavers of the past. Her palette is extensive, with colors dyed to her specifications; she, too, fills cold, unwelcoming spaces with beauty and warmth. The humanizing effect of a tapestry is the same, wether it adorns the forbidding walls of a stone castle or corporate behemoths of steel, marble and glass. But there the comparison ends.
Hernmarck is thoroughly modern and asserts her rights as an artist by defying all rules. Ignoring that a weaving should be flat, for example, she superbly manipulates not only the textile but the viewer as well. Through the use of perspective and shading, her iconography appears dimensional while it is in effect flat. Yet the surface, as a result of deftly combined yarns of varying density, is dimensional. Hernmarck draws on various sources for her subject matter, nature as well as mundane objects. Though unideological, her imagery is, nevertheless, entirely in tune with contemporary life, immediately understood yet unexpected and mysterious.
Like the ancient Romans who regarded painting as a window to the world, Hernmarck opens up new vistas. A luminous corner of lush, dense vegetation serves as a backdrop for a giant tree in Rainforest, 1971. Fragrant summer meadows are invoked by Poppies, 1978, Bluebonnets, 1979, and Springtime, 1992. The viewer rejoices with and joins the elderly man, who, hands in pockets, contemplates the abundance of food and flowers in Leadenhall Market, 1975. Annie Now and Then, 1973, a small monochromatic hanging, is like a wistful look into a stranger’s photo album. Who is she? What has become of her? In all of Hernmarck’s tapestries, iconography and surface vie equally for attention—the first through composition, color and content, the latter through deft handling of structure and textures.
If there is a leitmotif in Hernmarck’s work, it is semantics. In tapestries depicting newspapers, envelopes, tickets and money the language is obvious. Up and Down, 1990, a tour de force of reality, illusion and abstraction, incorporates a haiku by Tachibana Akemi. The tapestry unfolds like a giant watercolor of overlapping panels with hues suggestive of yet further text—Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn.” Delicate pinks turn into deep, rich tones of a summer’s day followed by the darkness of the evening sky to once again a hint at another dawn. In other works the texts are fragmentary, undecipherable and cryptic, resembling runic script or glyphs left to the viewer’s imagination to parse. Sometimes it is a mere intimation, as the brilliant Folded Papers 1, 1988, or in Open Door/Open Book, 1997, with its random notations in the margins.
Because of its enormous length (47 feet), Journey, 1977, which at FIT was mounted on a specially designed diagonal wall, is a calm, contemplative composition depicting large rocks and tranquil waters in neutral colors. A tiny boat, a mere speck on the horizon, emphasizes the vast expanse of nature, which in itself invites introspection. It is Hernmarck’s gift to draw the viewer into her world, and she was fortunate to find in Dorothy Twining Globus a creative and sensitive curator. A brilliant move was to juxtapose Journey with the very antithesis of stillness, Sailing, 1976, both visible from the same vantage point. In the latter, the energy and action of churning waves and men struggling to hoist sails are expressed through dazzling colors and strong diagonals.
This retrospective felicitously documented every aspect of Hernmarck’s career from 1963 to the present. (The artist moved to the United States in 1975 and now lives in Connecticut with her husband, the industrial designer Niels Diffrient.) A treat for the expert, it was particularly rewarding for the layperson unfamiliar with the technicalities of weaving. Sketches, watercolors, photographs, yarns and woven prototypes invited the viewer to share in the creative process and celebrate its completion.
How sad that it has become fashionable to malign beauty in art. Helena Hernmarck’s work is for those who can still be uplifted by masterful handling of material, virtuosity of design and visual pleasure. Like the tapestries of old, her thoroughly contemporary hangings will stand the test of time.
Sigrid Wortmann Weltge, professor in the history of art and design, Philadelphia University, is the author of Bauhaus Textiles: Women Artists and the Weaving Workshop (Thames and Hudson, 1998).
*The exhibition toured the Prince Eugens Waldemarsudde Museum, Stockholm, Sweden (October 2–December 5), following its showing in New York (June 22–August 28). Helena Hernmarck: Tapestry Artist, a 128-page, illustrated, hardcover monograph, published by Byggförlaget •Kulture, Stockholm, with texts by Hans Henrik Brummer, Monica Boman and Patricia Malarcher, is available for $40 from University of Washington Press, Seattle, 800-441-4115.