Mari-Ann Forsberg, designer of mid-century Swedish tapestries, was particularly well-suited to design a tapestry for a new hospital in Stockholm in the early 1970s. She had grown up as the daughter of a pharmacist, and was fascinated by the historical tools of given professions. During the 1960s, she had designed several other tapestries, one called “The Family Bakery” (see blog post from December 2, 2017), but more relevant to her commission for Rosenlunds Hospital, were “The Rose-scented Apothecary, or in Swedish, “Apoteket Rosendoften,” (see blog post from April 26, 2016) and one called Medicinal Advice, or “Medicinalrådet.”
Rosenlunds Hospital was founded during the 19th-century, as a poor house by the congregations of two churches on Södermalm in Stockholm, but by the mid- 20th century, had evolved into a large modern hospital. Architect Ervin Pütseps designed and supervised construction of the new hospital building from 1969-73. Forsberg’s tapestry, intended to hang in the entry to the hospital, was woven by the Märta Måås-Fjetterström workshop in Båstad, and was apparently completed in 1975, according to the date on the tapestry itself.
Forsberg’s subject— and I don’t know whether this was her own design, or one requested by the hospital—was a visual catalog of plants. More specifically, it was an homage to a 17th-century Swede, Johannes Palmberg, author of a book called Serta Florea Svecana (in Latin) or Swenske Örtekranz (in Swedish). This book, published in 1684, was the first true Swedish “herbal,” or botanical textbook. Palmberg’s book had a particular focus on plants with medicinal properties. It was an alphabetically-arranged compendium of some 150 common trees and plants, with both descriptions of the plants and discussion of their medical use, and illustrated with woodblock prints of the plants themselves. The book, while heavy in borrowings from earlier authors and relatively crude in its approach, was an ambitious effort and the only real Swedish botany textbook before the great 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his book, Flora Svecica in1745. This was, in fact, the book from which Linnaeus himself learned botany. The title, Swenske Örtekranz translates essentially as “Swedish Herbal Wreath, and the frontispiece of Palmberg’s treatise was in decorated with just such a wreath.
In her design for the Rosenlund Hospital tapestry, Forsberg surrounded the young 17th-century botanist, Palmberg, who was 44 when he published his textbook, with an extravagant wreath made up of plants— some herbs, yes, but also fruits, flowers as well as bugs, bees and butterflies.
Forsberg’s tapestry is woven in “gobelangteknik”— that is, tapestry weave, with the warp of the piece running sideways to the design, bound with linen on each end and reinforced with cords running vertically. It was woven by four talented weavers at the MMF studio whose initials appear with that of Ann-Mari Forsberg (AMF) in the lower left-hand corner: WJB, whose identity is unknown; BE, Brigit Elmstam, EJ Edith Johansson; and AD Anita Dahlin.
When finished, it was installed in the entry booth of Rosenlunds Hospital as shown below. Swedish hospitals seem to have realized early on that art can be calming and joyful and helps to counteract feelings of anxiety and fear. This piece in particular, with its abundance of spring flowers and ripe fruit, was like an enormous bouquet greeting those arriving at the new hospital.
Photos which follow show sections of the tapestry more closely. Two of the tapestry’s four corners are marked by the apothocary’s tools— mortar (shown above in a streaky marble) and wooden pestle for grinding medicinal herbs, scissors for snipping herbs, and a Delft-like ceramic pitcher in another coner. Two other corners show bees in a swarm— useful for producing honey, the basis of many herbal preparations; and another swarm– white cabbage butterflies perhaps, or maybe –suggests one beekeeper–even a blowing dandelion puff. The white cabbage butterflies were identified by Linnaeus in 1758 as pieris brassicae, a butterfly associated with turnips, a common Swedish vegetable.
Set against a black background, which recalls early Skanian traditional weaving (“flamskväv”), Palmberg at the center is sniffing a rose— perhaps a reference to the name Rosenlund, or rose grove, or perhaps another reference to Forsberg’s earlier tapestry of the Rose-Scented Apothecary, a whimsical depiction of his own love of plants—or perhaps all of these.
Individual flowers are recognizable: tulips, columbine, peonies, iris, daffodils, carnations:
A closer view of the weaving of several of these flowers shows the complexity of tapestry weaving which uses subtle color shadings and frequent changes of stitch size and shape to create textures which approximate the shadings of the flowers themselves.
An abundance of fruit is also presented: pears, apples, cherries. There seem to be peaches and figs too —whether these were available in Sweden in 1684, or simply part of Forsberg’s abundant and colorful wreath, I don’t know.
And there are bugs and beetles too, so differentiated in their woven colors and forms that someone who knows these could undoubtedly confirm these different species, and perhaps even their relevance to the topic. I suspect, knowing Forsberg’s love of specificity, that each of these has Swedish significance and may either have been identified by Palmberg or have to do with the flowers, fruits and herbs he identifies. If others know, please tell us!
What begins as an illustration of the work of a Swedish medicinal herbalist expands in Forsberg’s hands into a rich celebration of the natural world— flowers, fruit, herbs and bugs—in all its joyful plenty. It is no less than a celebration of life itself, a subject certainly appropriate for a place dedicated to healing. Although no longer hanging in the Rosenlund hospital, the tapestry hangs now in an immunology research lab— where its joy and message of healing may be as relevant now as it was in 1975.
Kulturförvaltningen, Stockholms läns landsting, particular thanks to Renee Lord.
Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Båstad, particular thanks to Martin Chard-Uściło
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “A Swedish Herbal Wreath: Ann-Mari Forsberg,” theswedishrugblog (5/15/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)