February 9, 2018
Profile: Birgit Hagen
Three of artist Birgit Hagen's textile pieces are included in our current exhibition Ode to a dishrag, hymn to a tiger, on view through March 18, 2018. After her death, Hagen's entire collection was bequeathed to the Hallingdal Museum, where her artwork is still held. Below, the museum's Seniorkonsulent Vibeke Hjønnevåg provides insight into Hagen's life and work.
Can you describe Birgit Hagen’s background and beginnings in working as an artist?
Birgit Hagen (1912-2004) grew up in the mountain village of Vats in Ål in the Hallingdal region. She was the third youngest child of eight sibling. Life was difficult while she was growing up, something she describes in several manuscripts dealing with her childhood. In general, she had a lot of odds against her: she was a female artist, lacked formal education, a single woman, raised by simple means far from central art institutions and in addition, she was suffered chronic illness during adolescence.
At the age of 31, she attended a two-year professional studies course in the drawing class at the Statens kvindelige industriskole in Oslo from 1943 to 1945. She had previously obtained a degree in nursing, and after the war she was given the opportunity to graduate at the Academy of Fine Art in Helsinki. This time of study was crucial to her development as an artist.
I understand that she chose not to sell her works. What was the reason for this decisions and did she make a living some other way while creating her artwork?
Birgit Hagen had no other income other than her work as an artist. She lived a secluded life, did not like the limelight and decided early on that her entire artistic production should be kept together. Her life’s work was entirely her own.
"The collection must not be destroyed, not torn apart or converted into money".
In the 1940s and 1950s, Birgit Hagen lived in Vats and partly in Oslo. She wove rugs for a living and had very little money. In 1953, Hagen received a scholarship from the Danish-Norwegian cooperation fund. She presented a carpet in Høstutstillingen at the Kunstnernes Hus in 1952 and 1953, and attended the Triennial in Milan in 1960 with a carpet titled Moder Jord (Mother Earth). Although her financial situation set boundaries, she lived in Paris during certain periods and went on several trips in southern Europe. In the fall of 1970 she had a large solo exhibition at the Kunstindustrimuseet. She received several public commissions and sold some large carpets to Norli church in Namdal and to a hospital in Porsgrunn. Her exhibitions and commissioned projects took on the powers.
As a retiree, she gained financial freedom and was able to travel more. She received an additional education grant and lived in Paris from 1977-1978. From 1980 to 1982 she attended the Art Academy in Oslo and as well as the Westland Art Academy, and she increasingly saw life as a whole in which all things were connected. Because her textile works are largely made from natural plant dyes, they do not tolerate direct light and must be carefully displayed. Hagen dreamt of a separate building specifically designed to display her work.
The majority of her textile pieces are now owned by the Hallingdal Museum. How did the acquisition of these works come to be?
As time passed, Hagen began to think of her legacy and what would happen to her life’s work when she was no longer here. Perhaps it was a relief for her when the decision was made that the Hallingdal Folk Museum would house the collection within the institution. She bequeathed her entire body of work to the museum, and after she died, all of her textiles and paintings came to the museum in Nesbyen.
Birgit Hagen’s artwork has a very distinctive style. What would you say are the hallmarks of Hagen’s work?
Birgit's life was characterized by an intense desire to find a form, an expression, possibly a message through colors and moods. She often took direct nature studies as a starting point and sought to recreate the seasons and the light's reflection in the landscape. A physical perception occurs in her work, and the most distinctive elements are her tactile expression and an amazing sense of color.
Her artworks are an intricate mix of fabric and stitches. Can you describe the process of creating her textile pieces?
The four embroidered collage-like textile works, Gamal gard, Fjell, Sol og småjenter and Lysebotn all contain motifs from small farms in rural surroundings with people in the foreground. In these works, Hagen has used textiles from worn clothing such as men's trousers in wool, cotton fabrics and knitwear – coarse and fine materials are used here together. These materials are assembled by hand with needle and threads of many qualities and colors. The motifs have a distinctly personal touch and are executed in an impulsive and creative way.
Hagen is known for her textile work but was also a painter. What was the relationship between these two media for her? Did she work similarly with both paint and textiles?
Creating for Birgit Hagen meant a life lived with her loom, and for her, she at first considered these her best years of work. In her later years, she began to work more with painting and drawing and she created her last textile piece in 1988. After that she dedicated herself solely to painting and drawing.
"It took a while before I dared to try the brush. When I realized that I could paint it was never necessary to return to textile. Now I think my paintings are the best works I've done! "
The exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger displays three beautiful textiles by Birgit Hagen. Can you tell us what viewers can see in the rest of her collection at the museum?
Hallingdal Museum does not have a permanent exhibition of Birgit Hagen’s textiles, but all of her artwork is safely stored at the museum. However, we are happy to lend the works to exhibitions, and if a person is interested in seeing the textiles, we can bring them out for further study.
For further reading on Birgit Hagen, see:
Boger, Runa (2016) Birgit Hagen. Sent, men godt. En historiefortelling i tekstil.
Stiftelsen til fremme av Birgit Hagens kunst i samarbeid med Hallingdal Museum (2011) Birgit Hagen.