Barbro Nilsson’s Energetic River Horses

An earlier post (March 30, 2017) looked at the way Märta Måås Fjetterström drew on the traditional Skanian tapestry imagery of the Bäckahäst, the Red River Horse. In 1919, this major Swedish designer drew up a rug, based upon traditional carriage cushions in the bäckahast pattern, retaining the pawing front leg, visible breath, and agitated mane and tail of the river horse, but changing the weaving technique, from the traditional gobelin weave, to a flat weave in decidedly non-traditional colors. And then in 1930, she revisited the bäckahäst subject matter in three small cushion-sized tapestries, and transformed the mythological red horse into something both more stylized and more domesticated. One of the tapestries even recast the fierce red horse as a mare with a foal.

In 1966, Barbro Nilsson, who had been selected to head the MMF studio in 1941 after Måås-Fjetterström’s death, herself found a new use for this same mythological river creature. The studio was commissioned by Sydkraft, one of Sweden’s largest hydropower companies, to produce a series of tapestries to hang in its new headquarters in Malmö, a building to be designed by Swedish architect, Klas Anshelm (1914-1980), who worked extensively in Malmö and Lund.

That year, in the magazine produced in-house by Sydkraft, Barbro Nilsson gave an account of her appropriation of the bäckahäst image for her own tapestries for this company. She said,

“In local people’s imagination the mists over the rivers of Skåne took the form of a mythical figure, the horse known as Bäckahästen which gallops over the landscape through AIR, CLOUDS and RAIN, through the SLOWLY RUNNING WATER of the rivers, through RAPIDS and down WATERFALLS to the SEA. The water provides STEAM POWER. The watery torrents are tamed into electric power which goes through the NATIONAL GRID out to industry and is regulated by SWITCHES. Six of the seven tapestries are in colours that form part of the SPECTRUM. These are colors that appear when the rays of the SUN, the source of all natural forces, are separated by rain acting as a prism.” (This passage is quoted by Annette Granlund in her article on Barbro Nilsson for Bukowskis).

Barbro Nilsson in her studio in Lerberget in 1964, with enormous study for tapestry photographed by her son, Pål-Nils Nilsson. From En bok som Barbro Nilsson.
Barbro Nilsson in her studio in Lerberget in 1964, with enormous study for a tapestry, precurser to the Sydkraft series. Photographed by her son, Pål-Nils Nilsson. From En bok om Barbro Nilsson.

Nilsson designed these complex gobelin tapestries as a linked series, using the Bäckahäst as a symbol of natural forces, and using color to symbolize different aspects of water-produced energy. Each tapestry was a different base color, with horses vigorously moving through fields of zigzagging related colors, a series of lines and sparkling diagonals. But in each tapestry the colors also move towards the next part of the color spectrum. Yellow has hints of green; Green has elements of blue; Blue contains purple areas, etc.

These tapestries hang now in the public hall of the original building. E.ON, the energy company which absorbed Sydkraft in 2001, is committed to having these tapestries on display for employees and visitors to enjoy.  (They are also planning to improve the lighting of the current installation).

A-IMG_4591
Barbara Nilsson. Photograph of 6 of the 7 gobelin tapestries for Sydkraft now hanging in lobby of E.ON building (Building originally built for Sydkraft). (photo, April 2017).

Nilsson designed six of the seven tapestries to be hung in a particular order which, as she discussed in the quotation above, told the story of water turned into power. From left to right these represent the sun, the slower-moving river, rapids and waterfalls, steam, nuclear/atomic power (Sydkraft was anticipating at this point, its expansion beyond hydroelectric into nuclear power in the 1970s) and the power grid itself (“solen, åar, forsar, ångan, atomkraftverk, linjenätet”). The corresponding colors were described from left to right as yellow, green, blue, purple, red, and yellow (actually more more orange) again. But looking at the six tapestries as a series, it is also clear that Nilsson was at pains not to just have each tapestry be a repeat of running horses and grid lines. On each tapestry the horse is placed differently, or moving in different directions and is positioned to suggest the particular aspect of energy being illustrated.

The photos which follow show a full view of each tapestry and then selected close up views of details of each.

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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing the sun (solen) signed ABMMF and BN, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing rivers (åar), signed ABMMF and BN, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing rapids and waterfalls (forsar), signed ABMMF and BN, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing steam (ångan), signed ABMMF and BN, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing nuclear power (atomkraftverk), signed ABMMF and BN, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing the electric power grid (linjenätet), signed ABMMF and BN, 1966.

Details of each of these tapestries follow:

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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing the sun, 1966.
2b1 IMG_4623
Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing rivers, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing rapids and waterfalls, 1966.
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 Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing rapids and waterfalls, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing steam, 1966.
4c1 IMG_4610
Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing steam, 1966.
5a1 IMG_4603
Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing nuclear power, 1966.
6a1 IMG_4600
Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing the electric power grid, 1966.

The seventh and largest tapestry hangs in a restricted area of the E.ON building. It has six sets of 3 river horses, and is blue with gold elements. Perhaps this tapestry captures the important role played by the electrical switches that Nilsson mentioned; these groups of mythical horses look like they are not just aspects of natural energy but by the way that their tails and manes are becoming zigzgs and their bodies becoming stars, it seems like the horses themselves are being transformed into energy. Or perhaps this tapestry is simply a celebration of the symbolic energy of the river horse, a summation of the story of the other six tapestries.

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Barbro Nilsson, photo of photo ofgobelin tapestry for Sydkraft, 1966, tapestry #7.

A few years after this particular tapestry was woven for Sydkraft, it was used as a model for another tapestry commissioned by the Swedish Parliament as a gift to the Riksbank (the country’s central bank) on its 300-year celebration in 1968. The river horse may have had less relevance for the Riksbank than did the richness of its materials. More than one kilogram of gold thread was used to produce the Riksbank tapestry.

IMG_2723
Barbro Nilsson photographed at the presentation of the Riksbank tapestry in 1968. Photo from MMF archives.

The pattern of one of these tapestries, “Steam” (Ångan), was also woven once more in 1968, but with two changes. It had no horse, and it was made to hang horizontally rather than vertically. This piece is currently on sale as a vintage piece by the original weaving studio: see http://mmfvintage.com/mmfvintage-webshop/barbro-nilsson-en/angan-tapestry-barbro-nilsson-1965/.

There is also a small version of half of the blue “Forsar” (Rapids and Waterfalls) panel, almost identical to E.ON one, with slight differences: in this version both of the horses are missing the arrows of breath, and the lower horse does not have a star as its eye. This may have been an earlier trial of the pattern; if so, it is interesting to see the changes. This piece is shown below.

Hakimian 22079 Linienat ca 1966 Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 10.41.11 AM
Barbro Nilsson, section of “Forsar” tapestry designed for Sydkraft, 1966, 3’6″ wide x 4’4″, Signed AB MMF BN. For sale at F.J. Hakimian, item #22079. (This photo has unfortunately cut off the signatures).

The Sydkraft tapestries were demanding to weave, particularly since Nilsson seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what was possible in tapestry weaving. She seems to have been exploring whether one could weave the same kind of complex shapes both as tapestry and as flat-weave rug but using the gobelin technique of filling angled or circular shapes by hand, and then making the newly-woven material flat and tight with a small hand held implement, rather than using the loom’s long beater to push the woven threads together.

Astonishingly, although these are a well-matched series of gobelin weavings, some of these tapestries were woven in one direction–like rugs, with the pattern ahead of the weaver. Others were woven like traditional tapestries, with the pattern turned sideways and the short side up. You can tell which are which here by the nature of the long “grid” lines in each tapestry. It is much easier to weave a horizontal line perpendicular to the direction of the loom’s warp, that is, running with the weft threads. So of this series of six tapestries, #s 1, 3, 5 and 6 (Yellow, Blue, Red and Orange) were woven like tapestries, and looking closely you can see the warp threads running sideways across the pieces as they hang vertically.

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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing the sun, 1966. Warp runs sideways
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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing nuclear power, 1966. Warp threads run sideways.

All four of these tapestries were woven in Barbro Nilsson’s own studio in Stockholm by her weaving assistants there. A tag on the back of the  tapestry  representing nuclear power, reads: Woven by Barbro Nilsson’s workshop N A Smedjegatan 21, by Edith Johansson, Marie-Lise Braek, Veronica Röntsh and Christina Lindmark

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Barbro Nilsson, tag showing weavers names from her Stockholm workshop on the back of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing nuclear power, 1966.

In contrast, tapestries # 2 and 4 (Green and Purple) were woven at the Märta Måås-Fjetterström atelier in Båstad. Again, looking closely, you can see the warp threads running through the piece vertically, and the weft woven in horizontal lines.

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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing the slow-moving river, 1966.
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Barbro Nilsson, detail of gobelin tapestry for Sydkraft representing steam, 1966.

With these seven wonderful tapestries, Nilsson transformed and gave new life to the traditional Bäckahäst imagery. She abandoned the horse’s original red color and gave it a rounder, more sculptural body than it had in the traditional tapestries. But she kept its visible breath and its windblown mane and tail. She takes the Skanian “lightning” patterning, often used as the border of traditional bäckahäst weavings and sets it loose from its place in the border, enlarges those zigzags so that they become looser and less rigid, until finally this pattern of repetitive lightning shapes becomes the background for these tapestries.

Nilsson had begun to play with these looser zigzag shapes in earlier rug designs, particularly in her design for a flatweave rug, Tånga, designed for the 1955 Helsingborg exhibition.

BN Tånga green and brown 1955 design
Barbro Nilsson, flat weave rug (rölakan), “Seaweed” (“Tånga brun och grön”) 278 x 213 cm, 1955.Signed AB MMF and BN. Sold at Bukowskis Modern Nordic and Design auction S210, (November 2016) item #110

And while the river horses were unique to this particular series, she had also begun several years earlier to explore variations on the motifs of sun and stars which she used in the Sydkraft tapestries. Several of these are shown below:

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Barbro Nilsson, gobelin wall-hanging, “Solvägen,” 101x 169 cm, 1964. For sale at MMFvintage.com.
BN Solfläker 1966 111_1_treasures_from_the_marta_maas_fjetterstrom_workshop_may_2016_barbro_nilsson_solflackar_tapestry_weave_carpet__wright_auction
Barbro Nilsson gobelin weave carpet, “Solfläker” 251 x 404 cm ( 8’3”x 13’3”), signed AB MMF BN, 1966, original location unknown. This rug was made in several versions of this design, all with the same coloration. Wright auction, Treasures from the Märta Måås Fjetterström Workshop, May 3, 2016, item #111.
barbro-nilsson-tapestry 60-69 from Artnet
Barbro Nilsson, gobelin tapestry, unnamed, 152.5 x214 cm, signed AB MMF and BN, undated; original location unknown. Sold at Bukowskis Modern and Nordic Design S210 Auction, Stockholm (November 2016), item #105

While not as well known as contemporary furniture or architecture, Nilsson’s tapestry series for Sydkraft stands as one of the finest pieces of mid-century design, and deserves broader recognition. Technically audacious and visually arresting, these pieces beautifully manipulate and enlarge the Swedish gobelin weaving tradition, This series of tapestries are the textile equivalent of a symphony with its various movements and explorations of both musical themes and musical techniques. The E.ON company recognizes the brilliance of these woven tapestries and has committed itself to maintaining them and making them available to visitors. For this we can be extremely grateful.

Sources:

Bukowskis auction house, Stockholm, online website.

E.ON informational handout about the company’s architecture and art

E.ON, visit in April, 2017. Thanks to Jenny von Platen of von Platen Modern Form, Malmö, for helping to arrange this visit, and to Kent Jerlström from E.On who welcomed us.  Photos of the tapestries are by the author unless otherwise noted.

Conversation and email exchange with Martin Chard Uścilo, at Märta Måås Fjetterström
workshop in Båstad, Sweden.

Granlund, Annette, “Barbro Nilsson, Colorist,” from Bukopedia on Bukowskis website,

F.J. Hakimian, New York

Møller, Viggo Steen. En bok om Barbro Nilsson, Bokförlaget Trevi, Stockholm (1977).

Wright auction house, Chicago.
Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Barbro Nilsson’s Energetic Horses” theswedishrugblog (5/28/17); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)

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