Weaving Serenity: Alf Munthe and Greta Gahn

Alf Munthe and Greta Gahn were a team. Looking at it one way, you could say that Greta Gahn, a highly competent technical weaver, gave Munthe the tools to realize his textile designs. Looking at it the other way, you could say that Munthe’s consistent artistic vision (style) challenged and enabled Gahn to find a kind of expressiveness in the design of monumental textiles that she could not have had on her own. But really, the point is, that their skills so perfectly complemented each other that the work, although attributed to him, was only realized through collaboration with her.

A generation younger than Märta Måås-Fjetterström, another of the most important  figures in twentieth-century Swedish weaving, both Munthe and Gahn were born in the early 1890s. Munthe grew up in Stockholm and studied painting. He painted portraits, landscapes and figurative compositions. He also experimented with a style called “Intimism,” using an impressionist broken-color technique to express the moods of different interior scenes. Instead of dots, however, Munthe used small squares— a technique he later adapted to his textile designs.

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Alf Munthe, Self-portrait, date or source unknown.

Alf Munthe married another artist, a painter, at age 25, in 1917, and had 4 children. A 1920 study trip to Paris, and an encounter with the 15th-century “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries at the Musée de Cluney apparently introduced him to textile art. He began to develop a strong interest in the decorative arts, designing wallpaper and painted wall decorations. In 1923 Munthe was invited by one of Sweden’s best-known architects, Gunnar Asplund, to design interior textile elements for the Skandiabiografen theater in Stockholm.  Asplund also asked Munthe to help with the decoration of the Swedish pavilion for the 1925 Paris Exhibition.

Greta Gahn grew up in Uppsala and then studied weaving at the Higher Industrial Arts School (later Konstfack) in Stockholm, and then further at Scuola di tessitura in Milan, probably just after WW1. I don’t know how long she stayed in Italy, or when she returned to Sweden, and there seems to be little information about her career during the 1920s when she was in her late 20s and early 30s. Gahn apparently did not like to design textiles, but she was known to be a talented weaver and interested in the constructional and technical aspects of weaving. In 1931, at age 37, she was appointed to an important position as head of The Friends of Handicraft (“Handarbets Vänner,” also called HV). This was a position she held until 1951. During the 1940s she worked closely with Ulla Cyrus-Zetterström, a weaving engineer, and Ruth Winell on various technical weaving issues and challenges with varied materials.

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Greta Gahn, detail of a photo from Svenska Dagbladet bild archiv, Nov 1947.

This organization, the Friends of Handicraft, really requires its own blog post. It was founded by a well-connected and progressive woman in 1874 to revitalize Swedish textile crafts. Under its first director, the “Friends” encouraged cooperation between weavers and artists of the day, including painters, Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn. Its next director put the organization on a firmer business basis. Under Gahn, who served as director through the lean years of WW 2, the Friends undertook the weaving of monumental tapestries, particularly for churches and public buildings. Alf Munthe designed a good many of these.

Both Munthe and Gahn came from families where the arts were valued, and as adults they were well connected in Stockholm art circles. Munthe’s sister, Siv, married Carl Malmsten, one of Sweden’s best known early 20th-century furniture designers. And Munthe’s father was a cousin of Axel Munthe, an expatriate doctor and writer. Gahn’s brother, Wolter, was an important Swedish architect, and one of the organizers of the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, which brought modernism to Sweden. Through her mother’s family, Gahn is also a relative of the contemporary designer of massive hyper-realistic tapestries, Helena Hernmarck.

In 1934 Munthe contacted Gahn about work with The Friends of Handicraft. This initiated a long professional collaboration and close companionship between the two. Within several years, Munthe was teaching design at the weaving school associated with the organization. He began to teach himself about weaving technique and experiment with traditional kinds of weaving. Unlike other designers who wanted to see how far their designs could overcome the constraints of weaving— the warp and woof set at right angles to each other—Munthe seems to have delighted in having these parameters. He sketched in pencil and watercolor, using graph paper ruled in millimeters. He is quoted (on the HV website) as saying, “ You have to make yourself small in the textiles. You have to learn to crawl between the threads.” (Munthe to Ulf Hard Segerstad).

Throughout the late 1930s and 40s, Munthe and Gahn cooperated on a series of important textile commissions through their joint work at the Friends of Handicraft. In 1951, when Gahn finished her tenure at The Friends, she and Munthe purchased an old red-painted farm complex in Tibble, in Leksand, north of Uppsala, and set up a workshop there. It was called Lekattgården. From there they executed a number of Munthe’s most important designs. Munthe was 59 and Gahn 57, and it must have been an exciting new challenge for them both, no longer to be responsible for an organization (her), or to be an employee (him), but to work together to achieve more fully their goal of creating important and monumental work, but in a smaller-scale, manageable way.

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Alf Munthe and Greta Gahn at Lekattgården, photo by Alfred Hedén.

In 1959 or 1960, Munthe was invited to design a series of woven panels for a crematory chapel in Nässjö, Sweden. The architect of the chapel was Professor Sven Ivar Lind, who had won the competition to design the chapel on the basis of his sensitive handling of the relationship between chapel and the extended burial grounds. Although 10 years younger than Munthe, Lind had been an associate of architect Gunnar Asplund, and in 1958 he had completed an important crematory chapel in Skövde—one which Asplund had designed before his death in 1940. Munthe had designed a series of panels in double-weave for that chapel, so Lind and Munthe already had a working relationship.

But the collaboration between Lind and the Lekattgården workshop was more than simply workable.  It was a rare example of completely coinciding artistic visions.  The result is a spectacular example of art and architecture in perfect balance, each enriching the other.

For the Nässjö woodland chapel (“Skogskapellet”), Lind designed a simple volumetric hall, lit from 3 sides, with a “porch” (entry hall) and small contemplative waiting room, as well as other service spaces, including the crematory and the accommodation of a coffin elevator. The building was constructed of bricks, and on the inside, Lind had these scrubbed with lime to give a soft dull surface. The building’s spruce-wood rafters, were exposed, and the windows set high in the walls. There is an organ and simple seating, and an extremely simple raised marble altar. But it is the five woven panels, designed by Munthe and executed with Gahn’s assistance, which gives the space a focus and contributes to the chapel’s tremendous sense of serenity.

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Skogskapellet, Nässjö, Sven Ivar Lind, architect, 1962. Exterior view.
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Skogskapellet, Nässjö, Sven Ivar Lind, architect, 1962. Entry from “porch” into chapel.
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Skogskapellet, Nässjö, Sven Ivar Lind, architect, 1962. View of Munthe tapestry panels from chapel entry.
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Skogskapellet, Nässjö, Sven Ivar Lind, architect, 1962. Scrubbed brick walls.
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Skogskapellet, Nässjö, Sven Ivar Lind, architect, 1962. Windows set high in wall.

For Asplund’s earlier Skövde Chapel, Alf Munthe had designed a rich and magisterial series of tapestries in red and white double weave. For this chapel, the commission required something different. As architect, Lind gave precise instructions to the church’s vestry about what he wanted in the way of textile ornamentation. His instructions sound very much as though he was already thinking about Munthe’s style of work. Lind told the vestry that he wanted a woven piece to cover the wall behind the altar that extended up to the roof beams. He wanted it to be freely hanging panels, hung in separate planes, and he said that it should be made of semi-bleached linen yarn and a bright rya yarn, quite wooly, “possibly underlined by a sparingly-occurring third color tone.” And he wanted the construction of the weaving to create a pattern of relief on the woven surface. He noted that a weaving of this kind (which he was “suggesting”-!) should serve well the various liturgical functions the chapel might house. But, he cautioned, it was a “prerequisite” that such a piece must act as an ornament—that is, complement the architecture, “both technically and artistically.”

The panels designed by Munthe with Gahn’s help exhibit exactly this combination of technical skill in weaving and artistic design which enriches and complements the architecture. There are 5 narrow panels which, as the architect requested, cover the entire altar wall between floor and ceiling beams, and fit precisely between two of those beams. They are hung from a metal framework (essentially like towel bars) which situates the panels in different planes, giving them an ordered back-front-back-front-back rhythm. The backs of the tapestries are also reinforced with metal rods set in fabric pockets to stabilize and weight the hangings.

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Five hanging panels, showing their placement in the chapel and how they hang in alternating planes.
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop,woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Detail of panel hanging system.
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Reinforcing system for backs of tapestries.
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Detail of reinforcing system for backs of tapestries.

Of particular note is the way the central panel pulls back from, and creates a visual frame for, the stationary gold cross located just behind the altar. This is exactly the kind of interaction between architecture and ornament which Lind wanted to achieve.

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Detail of reinforcing system for backs of tapestries.
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Recessive central tapestry panel creates visual frame for cross.

The extraordinary composition of this central panel has black and tan elements bracketing — and essentially drawing the eye to— the woven white cross which sits behind the cross of gold metal. And higher up on the wall there is another woven white cross in a different composition, but ornamented with its own smaller black and gold elements, and even higher up, another small gold woven cross, set among black elements.

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Central panel.

The two end panels offer variations on the central panel. They also have the black elements in the middle (but no white cross) and have higher white crosses with black and golden elements.

In terms of the overall composition, Munthe really has invented his own pattern language here, almost a calligraphy of abstract symbolic forms which repeat and vary in their combinations from panel to panel.

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. View of the 5 panels with repeating and viaried elements.
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. One of two “secondary” panels, with woven patterning.

In terms of the colors used, the designers and weavers improved on Lind’s original requests. There is indeed a unbleached linen woven background material, woven extremely finely. The piece achieves its quiet appearance with a principle tone which picks up the tonality of the walls themselves, plus black and gold used sparingly (as directed!).

One of the most dramatic and thrilling aspects of these panels is the way they are so beautifully woven with loops of yarn pulled up in relief from the flat white ground. And all the loops are pulled up to exactly the same height!  The architect had asked that the relief sections have a woolly feeling, and that is exactly what he got. The yarn in each section of pattern is high, tight and curly, creating a sense of depth and shadow. Together with the pattern and color, this sense of surface relief is striking, and provides all of the visual movement necessary.

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Detail of pattern relief and gold color.

The woven panels are signed, some with a stylized “Ltt, 1961” (Lekattgården), or just 19/61 One of the dates looks oddly to me like MG, an acknowledgement of the Munthe-Gahn partnership.

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Close-up view of woven elements and  Ltt 1961 Signature
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, woven panels for Skogskapellet, Nässjö. Close up view of woven elements and 1961 date.

The chapel has one other woven piece, a small colorful drapery for the lectern— the stand used for reading from the Bible. This was designed by Munthe and presented as a gift to the church

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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, small woven drape for lectern, Skogskapellet, Nässjö.
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Alf Munthe, Lekattgården workshop, detail of small woven drape for lectern, Skogskapellet, Nässjö.

The original appropriation for the panels commissioned from Lekattgården was 25,000  SEK,  which would be about $35,000 today. The chapel is used for funerals several times a week.  The woven panels are a valued part of the chapel furnishings, and are occasionally given a specialized professional cleaning–particularly to remove residue left by smoke from candles used at the funeral services.

Before being installed in the church, these woven panels were exhibited at Sweden’s National Museum in September 1961. And while the weaving of these was probably still in progress, Munthe had been awarded the prestigious Prince Eugen medal in 1960. This award had previously been won by only one other weaver, Barbro Nilsson. The citation for this award noted that Munthe’s woven panels for the Skovkapellet were among the highest expressions of Swedish textile art.

Although both the award itself and the attribution of these woven panels is to Alf Munthe, it is clear that, although he was the designer, Greta Gahn contributed much to the perfection of these. Even more than with rugs in which weavers “interpret” a designer’s intent, the power of these particular woven panels relies greatly on their actual construction, not simply their pattern. This was Gahn’s contribution.

Sources

Per-Åke Backman, email correspondence with summary of his presentation from 2012 exhibit on Munthe at Leksands Kultur

Cecilia Ekebjär, “Textil skatt bias i Leksand,” 8 Feb 2012 in DT newspaper:
https://www.dt.se/artikel/noje/textil-skatt-visas-i-leksand

http://www.geni.com

Handarbetets Vänner website, http://www.hv-textil.se/

Historiska personer i Leksands kommun

Olof Kling, Church secretary, brochure, “Historik angående tillkomsten av kapellkrematoriet )Skogskapellet= å Skogskyrkogården i Nässjö,” Nässjö, 1 November, 1962. All historical information and quotations of architect are from this brochure.

lexikonettsamanda.se

Skogskapellet, Nässjö, visit, 4/21/18, with thanks to Kenneth Claesson for the warm welcome.

Wikipedia

Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Weaving Serenity: Alf Munthe and Greta Gahn” theswedishrugblog (6/11/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)

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