Charlotte Johannesson, the artist who wove with graphics from the first computers | Culture

Image from the exhibition 'Take me to another world', by Charlotte Johannesson, at the Reina Sofía.
Image from the exhibition ‘Take me to another world’, by Charlotte Johannesson, at the Reina Sofía.

She was barely 20 when Charlotte Johannesson decided to enroll in a textile arts school in her native Malmö, southern Sweden. There, according to her own account, it was forbidden to have her own ideas, a challenge for an artist with a strong character and deep feminist convictions whose response was to create tapestries with texts with radical political messages that she later sold in street markets. Thus began an artistic career that would lead her, from 1978, to combine the delicacy of textile art with digital graphics obtained with the first generation of Apple computers. Daughter of the hippie and punk cultures, her work is a constant protest against the politics of her country and against international conflicts such as the Vietnam War or the coup against Salvador Allende. His career declined when the new Apple computers closed the public use of their graphics. In the last decade, the recognition of young artists has made him take up looms again at the same time that the Museo Reina Sofía inaugurates the first retrospective dedicated to him in Spain. Under the title of Take me to another world 150 works that review his entire career are exhibited until August 16.

The coronavirus has made it impossible for the 77-year-old artist to travel to Madrid, although she is still in top shape working on the same issues she addressed at the beginning of her career. The commissioners, Lars Bang Larssen and Mats Stjernstedt, have not been able to move either. Manuel Borja-Villel, director of the museum, feverish from the first dose of AstraZeneca that they administered the day before, explained that the exhibition is part of the program that the museum dedicates to publicize the work of little or unknown female artists in Spain , as is the case of the Norwegian painter Anna-Eva Bergman, who can be seen until mid-May in the Velázquez palace.

Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson.  / PERSONAL FILE
Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson. / PERSONAL FILE

“Charlotte Johannesson is a pioneer in artistic creation made with apparently disparate means such as the loom and the computer,” says the museum director. “If her work has not transcended enough it is because both she and her husband and collaborator, Sture Johannesson, never wanted to be part of what is understood by the market. They set up self-managed spaces where they worked and made their work known to those closest to them, but they never sought fame ”. Together they created in 1966 a textile company and gallery called Cannabis.

The first part of the exhibition is a tour of the works dated in the sixties and seventies. There are beautiful tapestries with harmonic colors in which a message of protest is never missing: There’s no future (1977), Drop dead! (1977), Actions speak louder than words (1976) o Freedom for the RAF (Fraction of the Red Army). “In his tapestries,” adds Borja-Villel, “Johannesson questions the dominant artistic canon of the time, using a material and technique traditionally associated with the female world and artisanal, and images from comics and the media, turning them into a vehicle of feminist denunciation as in I am not an angel (1974).

After purchasing an Apple II Plus

The second part delves fully into the collaboration between woven painting and the computer. It arises after a trip of the couple to California. There they got an Apple II Plus, with which Charlotte Johannesson began to draw before there were programs for it. Soon after, they founded the Digitalteatern (active 1981-1985) in their own home, a pioneering experimental workshop in the production of computer images. Sture focused on the more technical aspects, while Charlotte created the images. The artist thus took possession of what until then was considered an instrument of power of the technopatriarchy. From this stage, the series of digital graphics dedicated to celebrities from the 80s with such popular characters as Boy George, Bjorn Borg, Ronald Reagan or David Bowie; Me and my computer (1981-1986) and Human with satellite (1981-1985) combines images of hyperspace, self-portraits, mythological figures or technological references.

The culmination of the exhibition is represented in a last small room in which the latest series of tapestries made by Charlotte Johannesson hang from the ceiling as a banner. Dated in 2019 and with a predominance of dark tones, one of the works asks about a world map: “Save as Art? Otherwise”. In another he claims that the brain is bigger than the sky and concludes with a cannabis leaf titled Native American. This final part includes a permanent projection that documents the career and work of Charlotte Johannesson and her husband with photos and images. You can see her working in her workshops, operating with the first computers she used; on her trips to London or California or her encounters with famous people, such as David Bowie, whom she ran into by chance at a gas station and who signed a poster created by her that she was carrying at the time.

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