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Finnish Fiber Artist Exhibits 70 Years of Monumental Textiles

A new retrospective at Design Museum Helsinki celebrates influential textile artist Kirsti Rantanen.
Girl with Flaxen Hair, 1972. Photo: Rauno Träskelin

Nearly 70 years after she began designing textiles and making art by turning yarn and natural fibers into fabric through cultural traditions like weaving, an important figure in Finland’s late 20th century art world is getting a comprehensive retrospective. Kirsti Rantanen’s work, which is currently on display at Design Museum in Helsinki, is notable for her role in legitimizing craft processes as visual art and producing large-scale sculptures through those processes. As exhibition curator Harry Kivilinna tells The Creators Project, it’s been over 20 years since much of the work in the exhibition has been seen. “Almost all her works have not been on display since the beginning of 1990s, and the archive material, drawings and sketches have never been shown in exhibitions.”


Although the exhibition begins in the 1950s and covers Rantanen’s entire career, the focus is primarily on her work in the 1970s; a time when she moved from figurative wall hangings toward more ambitious sculptural work. Before Rantanen started using traditional crafts to create works that function as sculptures, processes like weaving were only seen as folk art, which had been made in Finland since the 9th century. “Kirsti Rantanen’s career reflects the changes in textile art that began in Finland in the 1970s, and in which she was an important initiator,” a statement from Design Museum explains.

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Snow Cover in Spring, 1979. Photo: Rauno Träskelin

“Rantanen has also been an important teacher for a whole generation of textile artists. The exhibition addresses her significance as a teacher and an artist with material compiled from interviews with her colleagues and former students,” says the museum’s statement.

In addition to being a mother and textile design instructor, Rantanen pushed the physical limitations of textile art by creating works on a monumental scale, works that are described as having distinctly narrative qualities. “Rantanen’s work is slow art, meditative, created in the midst of nature at a slow pace,” says the statement. Evidence of the scale and narrative in Rantanen’s work can been seen in the images of the Design Museum’s sculpture garden, where they’re on display in an effort to give visitors the opportunity to appreciate the meditative aspect of these works.


One of Kirsti Rantanen’s monumental works on display in Design Museum’s sculpture garden in Helsinki. Photo: Paavo Lehtonen

According to Kivilinna, Rantanen is also a prolific writer and penned long background stories about her works. “This includes not only commissioned works—figurative tapestries from 1970 and 1980s—but also her monumental, sculptural works.” In a quote from Rantanen, the artist talks about the influences that inform these works. “I return to ancient, primitive methods in a completely instinctive way. The starting points of my technique can be traced back to the Stone Age. I am like a Stone Age woman when I weave. The primitive nature of the technique transports one far back in time. The massive fabric grows layer by layer in my hands.”


Photo: Paavo Lehtonen

Considering the recent popularity of traditional craft processes like knitting as an antidote to the stress of life in the digital age, this retrospective comes at a particularly appropriate time. As Kivilinna points out, “Sometimes you just need to get rid of the fuss with loud visual surrounding culture. In [the] case of Rantanen it is a sort of return back to the basics and materials. It is a different approach to time passing by.”


Interior Architect Hanni Koroma and Kirsti Rantanen in a meeting at Design Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Sergio Urbina


Another monumental work in the Design Museum sculpture garden. Photo: Paavo Lehtonen

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Boulder, 1992. Photo: Rauno Träskelin

Kirsti Rantanen’s retrospective exhibition will be on display at Design Museum, Helsinki through March 7, 2017.


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