When Märta Måås-Fjetterstrom died in 1941, Barbro Nilsson was hired to head up the Märta Måås-Fjetterstöm weaving workshop in Båstad, on Sweden’s south-west coast. Nilsson, who in 1947 also became head instructor in the textile division at Konstfack, Stockholm’s premier design school, in turn, hired several exceptionally-talented students over the next several years. Among these were Marianne Richter, Ann-Marie Forsberg and another was Barbro Sprinchorn. This blog has looked frequently at the work of Nilsson, Richter and Forsberg, but not at Sprinchorn, mainly because she did so few rugs— which was my initial focus— but also because her work is just on the cusp of change, when textile work in Sweden (and elsewhere) was moving away from utilitarian and decorative and moving towards claiming space as an art form in itself: not just being “weaving” but now becoming “fiber arts.” I don’t say this sarcastically, but it was a definite cultural shift, one of the reasons I have focused mostly on work from the period before about 1965 or 70.
Born in Sundsvall in 1929, Barbro Synnergren was the only child of a banker and a pharmacist. As a child, her summers were spent at an family home in an old fishing port of Lörudden in Sundsvall, about 200 some miles north of Stockholm. The coast here is rocky, and the traditional red boathouses by the water frame a very small harbor. Barbro seems to have grown up attuned to nature, and even after moving to Stockholm, continued to find birds, fruit, and flowers to be an inspiration.
As a young woman, Synnergren trained as a drawing teacher at Konstfack and concurrently took a part-time program in textiles at Konstfack. She married Gunnar Sprinchorn, a civil engineer, in 1952, and subsequently completed the 4-year full textile program at Konstfack. When she graduated as Barbro Sprinchorn in 1955, she was invited to join MMF, working from Stockholm, but also doing her own free-lance work. She had a daily routine, working at the MMF branch, then located in the Gamla Stan, or Old Town, in Stockholm the mornings and then working on her own sketching, painting, drawing and embroidery in her own home studio.
Sprinchorn spent hours sketching and drawing, both from nature and studying work at museums. Her expressive freehand drawings were always the basis of her textile designs, and as she matured her work became more and more lyrical. The small woven tapestries which were one of her preferred modes of expression (she also did embroideries) are much like paintings— with washes of color and forms which are suggested but almost abstract. Of all of the designers I have looked at in this blog, she was perhaps the most painterly, using the varied textures which could be produced in a tapestry weave like paint. She was also exploring many of the same issues painters who were her contemporaries were looking at: the tension between surface and space, and between representation and reality.
This blog post will look at a number of Sprinchorn’s early pieces and themes.
From the beginning, Sprinchorn made evident her interest in poetry— both contemporary and ancient, and she explored this interest in both embroidery and woven work. Working with embroidery, she drew on texts from a contemporary Swedish poet, Nils Ferlin, and from the American poet, Ezra Pound. One of her first pieces designed to be woven by the Märta Måås-Fjetterström workshop was a piece called “Roses and Bannners” with woven quotations from a love poem called Arsinoë by a contemporary Swedish poet, Gunnar Ekelöf. The design of the piece with its bands of printed text and scattered roses echoes several (non-consecutive) phrases drawn from the poem, with its theme of binding and wrapping a loved one’s eyes with strips of linen. These phrases might be translated in English in the following way:
I wrap these strips/bands over my beloved’s eyes,
Over their soul.
…Don’t you already look like a butterfly chrysalis
as it hangs in the rosebush!
Sprinchorn’s choice of poet, Ekelöf, as the source of her woven text, was also interesting, in that Ekelöf was interested in breaking down traditional poetical syntax and using a dense pile-up of images, as well as (like e.e. cummings), abandoning capital letters altogether in one of his early collections of poems. In “interpreting” his work in textile, Sprinchorn respects that lack of capitalization, and is in her own way breaking down the traditional design syntax of weaving, by juxtaposing the woven squares, so typical in Swedish traditional textiles, with these bands of words which appear to curl, flutter and float above the squares like celebratory banners. Abstract squiggles of red roses and green leaves similarly do not read as part of the red and white checked background but as something scattered loosely on it.
In 1961, at just aged 32, Sprinchorn had a triumphal one-man show at a gallery called Galleri Handverket (The Handicraft Gallery) in Stockholm. She showed woven textiles, embroideries and a few rugs. The exhibition was enthusiastically reviewed, well-attended and most of her work sold.
One of the rugs was probably the one she named after a Eurasian bird, the Bullfinch (“Domherre”). The bird has clear coloration with four colors: black, grey, red, and white, each color neatly delineated.
Sprinchorn did not adopt this exact color scheme, although the red she used seems to capture the bullfinch’s wonderful breast color, and one could read the diagonals in the background as branches. But this is probably too easy an interpretation. The composition of this rug is balanced, but entirely assymmetrical, and while Sprinchorn continues to play with woven colored squares, it is also clear that she is subverting or challenging the sense that this design is all on the same picture plane. As she did with Roses and Banners, there is a kind of tension between foreground (the single colored squares) which seem to float at some distance above the notched golden bars on their on white ground. What is astonishing is that her composition manages to feel well-balanced despite the complete lack of symmetry or clear patterning. She seems to again be exploring the idea of finding ways to express in textile terms something (here, the random hopping of the bird?) which is essentially poetic.
As did the other MMF designers, Sprinchorn often designed smaller weavings (often used as wall hangings or pillows) as a way of exploring some of the details of her larger work. At some point she did a small tapestry version of this pattern in quite different colors, with yellow, blues and browns.
There was also a flat-weave rug made in these alternate colors. The pattern remains consistent between the two rugs.
The report I have of the important 1961 Handverket exhibition — from the Swedish Women’s Biographical Dictionary —suggests that there were several pieces of embroidery shown there which have the same titles as woven tapestries known to be her designs. So this is a bit confusing. Among the embroideries mentioned were those titled The Blue House at Siljan, Provencal Village, Bouquet, and Arsinoë. The description of the last of these corresponds very much to that of the first piece discussed above, also called Arsinoe, but it is clearly a description of an embroidery not a tapestry.
Here is (a translation of) that description:
“In the latter embroidery, winds blow among flowers and leaves and bands of text in strips with phrases by Gunnar Ekelöf. The physical base for this embroidery, like many others, was a fabric mosaic with linen in different soft tones. Barbara Sprinchorn bought this stained linen from Svensk Tenn’s big assortment. The grid of the linen mosaic created distance and dynamics for the embroidery.”
It looks as though Sprinchorn worked back and forth between embroidery and weaving, perhaps working with the same images or themes in both media. And the embroidery called Bouquet shown at this 1961 gallery exhibition may have either closely anticipated or closely followed a large tapestry of the same name which was also designed in 1961 for AB MMF, but which is not mentioned in this report of her exhibition.
This particular tapestry with its lively coloration, and sense of a festive table, was purchased originally for Operkällaren, the upscale restaurant in the cellar of Stockholm’s jugendstil opera house. Once again, despite its apparent simplicity, Sprinchorn seems to be taking her tapestry design in a more modern direction. She seems to cheerfully thumb her nose at the conventions of tapestry weaving, in which the tapestry gives some kind of pictorial version of reality. Again using the gridded background —which can be read as both tablecloth or simply backdrop—she seems to present a kind of fractured cubist view of bunches of flowers, some large and open, some smaller or in bunches. But there is considerable ambiguity here: the small flowers of the patterned tablecloth seem to migrate into the larger bunches, and are the darker or contrasting patches around the flowers vases seen from the top, shadow patches, or simply a way to set off the flower forms? There is a kind of playfulness not just in the color scheme but in the contrast between the familiar grid and the loose and abstract flowers.
Two small studies, both called Little Bouquet (Buketten liten) were either preparatory studies, or ways of using pieces of the original design as smaller weavings. One of these has the same colors as the larger piece; the other uses different colors. In both cases, their designs are not quite the same as the finished large tapestry, suggesting that Sprinchorn did study the effect of the smaller woven pieces.
At the 1961 Galleri Handverket exhibition, Barbro Sprinchorn also showed another version of woven poetry. For this piece, she drew on a text from the Havamál, a kind of mystic Norse text, proported to be words of wisdom from the Norse god, Odin. (About this text, Wikipedia says, “Hávamál is both practical and philosophical in content.”) She called this piece, “Letters” (Bokstäverna).. The obscurity of the text probably pleased Sprinchorn. It reads (in Swedish and in my rather improvisational translation) as follows:
“Måttligt vis må en man vara, aldrig alltför vis. Om man icke vet sitt öde i förväg, kan man leva med sorglöst sinne”
One must live in a moderate manner, never be too wise. If one does not know their fate in advance, they can live with a carefree attitude.
This text, like her earlier one, sets letters against a background of large colored zones. The colored areas here are less squares, than a grid shaped by forms of the letters themselves. The letters become abstractions: shapes of Ms and Vs become As; Es and Fs create horizontals, Ss creates swirling movements, and the arrangement of other letters provide visual movement and balance. It may not be an accident that one’s eye is drawn to the large Ö in the center, with its light rim and darker center, and then to the two letters D and E. The word öde is the word for ”fate” in Swedish, but the poetic word “ode” is the same in both Swedish and English, and it was a word Sprinchorn used as the title for another of her weavings. Word play, indeed.
The woven background of striated linen tones in this tapestry seems to approximate the linen from the Svenskt Tenn store which Sprinchorn used for her embroidered pieces. Here the letters seem almost divorced from their gnomic message. In fact, this piece asks viewers, Swede and non-Swede alike to revert to that pre-literate stage where letters were just shapes, with a kind of totemic value in themselves, quite separate from word meaning. Here again there is the play —for clearly it was play, of a very intense kind, for Sprinchorn— between form and meaning in her early textile designs.
Biographical Dictionary of Swedish Women:
Barbro Helene Sprinchorn, http://www.skbl.se/sv/artikel/BarbroHeleneSprinchorn, Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon (artikel av Barbro Björk), hämtad 2018-06-15.
Brunius, Jan, “ Friheten Erövrad—Textil och Politik,” in Svenska Textilier 1890-1990, Bokförlaget Signum, Lund, 1994.
Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm
Göteburgs Auktionskammare via auktionet.com
https://www.mmf.se/ : website of Märta Måås-Fjetterström workshop, Båstad, Sweden
riksarkivet.se, article on Gerda Sprinchorn
Stockholms Auktionsverk, Stockholm
Jenny von Platen of vonPlaten Modern Form, Malmö, for help with poetry translation.
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “Playful Subversion” theswedishrugblog (6/26/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)