The Elements of Gerda’s Style

What makes one of Gerda’s designs so immediately recognizable?  Leaving the patterns themselves aside, what are the elements of her style?

violaLook at this little wild pansy.  It’s a good example.  The leaves are usually shown flat, not folded, and mostly with no overlap.  No shiny highlights or shadows, but sometimes the midrib is lighter or darker, or the blade itself is two-toned.  All the variety and liveliness is provided by the use of multiple colors of green. The flowers, however, are more three-dimensional.  At least one is drawn face-on, unless the flowers are tubular, in which case they may all be shown in profile.

solanumIn her more complex designs, such as this nightshade, there may be more stems, and more of the leaves and stems may overlap.  Some of the leaves have some of the underside turned up.  The flowers are still shown clearly, though.  The fruits get the most three-dimensional treatment.  She always put in a little highlight and called for shading such that they really do look round in cross-section.

For years I struggled to characterize this, and figure out why it appealed to me so strongly.  I could smack myself that I didn’t realize what I was looking at.  When I read Gerda’s own description of her design process, she spelled it out plainly.  She always worked with fresh material wherever possible, and to keep a sample as long as possible she often worked from pressed material as well.

A Gerda Bengtsson design is essentially a picture of an herbarium specimen.

How many hours have I spent pressing botanical specimens?  Making sure the leaves are nice and flat, that overlap is kept to a minimum, that extraneous material has been carefully removed without altering what the plant says about itself?  Fiddling so that the flowers are displayed to best advantage?  Using padding to make sure the fruits are not squashed?

Now I get it.

(A reminder that this blog looks best on your computer, not your phone!)

Advertisements

Gerda’s Rabbit

Whenever Gerda told the story about how she started designing needlework, she always mentioned how she was struck by the plants and animals of the Unicorn Tapestries that she saw at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.  One of her first designs, at the request of the Handcrafts Guild,  was a little rabbit based on one in the tapestries.

gerda original rabbitI recently received a book on Gerda’s stitchery, one I had ordered from Japan.  It’s in Japanese, but the contents are pretty clear.  One of the illustrations is a photo of that humble little pattern, with the areas to be stitched colored by watercolors.  If you look closely, you can see the small numerals which indicate what thread was to be used for each area.

gerda stitched rabbitNext to this illustration is one of the design all stitched up.  At this point, Gerda’s designs were being completely stitched, background and all.  It would not be until later that she would decide that one strand of flower thread on loosely-woven linen would give the lighter, more delicate effect that best suited plants.

The tapestries Gerda saw in Paris were made in Flanders of wool and silk, about 1511.  The set includes one tapestry for each of the five senses plus a larger one entitled À Mon Seul Désir.

Recently, I had a chance to see the equally famous set of unicorn tapestries, The Unicorn Hunt, which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in New York City.   The set of seven (in varying sizes, one represented only by two fragments) was woven of wool, silk, and gold sometime between 1495 and 1500, most likely in Brussels.

Though the Cluny tapestries have red backgrounds and the Hunt tapestries have dark backgrounds, and the Hunt series is much more detailed, the two sets share some strong design similarities, most notably the gorgeous millefleur back- grounds.  Seeing the Hunt tapestries in person was a magical experience, especially in such a beautiful, castle-like setting.  I can only imagine that I shared the same enchantment Gerda felt.  It was a fresh breath of inspiration.

I also found, to my delight, a little rabbit among the blossoms of the Hunt tapestries.  I think he must be a cousin of the one Gerda saw.

cloister rabbit

 

 

See? This is What I Mean.

I am still going around and around in my head.  How big should the finished flowers be?  Life size?  Bigger?  There are only so many stitches per inch you can stitch, unless you want to be doing over-one work on 40 count silk gauze–and I don’t!  But I do want enough detail for the plants to be recognizable.  If I put a lot of detail into the tiny ones, the larger plants are going to be HUGE.

Let’s take a case in point.  Scarlet Pimpernel.  

scarlet-pimpernel-horticultureIt’s a tiny thing, only a few inches tall.  Opposite, ovate leaves.  The flowers are on slender stalks and the corolla is about 1/4″ across.  Five sepals, five petals.  Bright salmon color with a bluish or purplish eye-ring and a white center.  Five golden anthers.  The fruit is spherical and nods on a slender stalk.

Just how much of that can we capture?

The leaves aren’t going to be a problem at any size.  The flowers, now. . . Those will be tricky.  First off, counted cross stitch is worked on an evenweave fabric, from a gridded chart.  There is no way to elegantly chart up something that has a five parts arranged in a circle unless you use a lot of stitches and finished design is quite large.   The color will pose no problem.  It should even be possible, with a little bit of outlining, to get the purple eye ring.  The yellow anthers, though.  Those will be lost.

I remembered the other day that, in one of my Gerda Bengtsson books, there is a Scarlet Pimpernel design.  Luckily for me, this little plant grows all over the North Temperate Zone, so Gerda was very familiar with it.  This is her take:

You can see how Gerda dealt with pentaradial symmetry in this case—She didn’t.  Her flowers are square. But the plant still “reads” as Scarlet Pimpernel because of the color, the leaves, the fruit, and the branching habit.

In poking through the stash, I found out that I actually had three Scarlet Pimpernels charted by Gerda.  Each is a little bit different.

This one is a bit simpler, from a book in which the plants and charts are smaller than the first example.  There aren’t any buds, and the branching pattern is less complex.  The flowers are still square, but they’re not the same as in her first example.  I think I actually like this one better, though it would be nice to have buds.

This third example is from a book in which the designs are meant to occupy rectangular spaces rather than squares.  The plant has a very lifelike habit and even has some bits that overlap, but those flowers are still square.

In each case, she assessed the space she needed to fill, figured out how many stitches she had to play with length and width, determined how stylized she wanted to be, and went from there.  If the great Gerda Bengtsson was satisfied with little square Pimpernels that definitely look convey the idea of  Pimpernel-ness, shouldn’t that be good enough for me?  If I’m honoring her spirit, shouldn’t I use the stylistic approach she did?

Where is the line between homage and imitation?

And then there is the little voice in the back of my head that says, “You know, if you did these plants in surface embroidery, you could stitch anything you could draw and not worry about charts…”

Which is a dilemma for another day.

So Where is the Stitching Already?

So where are the embroidered plants already? What’s the hold-up?

Several things are making this a long, slow project rather than a jump-right-in project.

First is a lack of time.  After work there is dinner and housework (ha!) and cats and friends and books.  There’s another blog to work on, and a novel going out in installments, and a herbarium database to improve.  On the weekends, there are errands to run and grass to mow and, and, and…

Then there is the vicious cycle of where to start.  I have an idea of what plants I’d like to include, but the list is far longer than a single design could reasonably include.  I need to actually sit down and sort them into groups.  Lists.  I am good at lists.

I have also needed to study up on how Gerda made her designs—and design as in not just how the plants are drawn or laid out on a chart, but the actual method.  Did she draw on graph paper?  Did she–as some cross stitch designers have been known to do — paint on needlework fabric and then transcribe the colored areas, thread by thread?  Where did she start?

Her method is worthy of a post all to itself, and there will be one, but I now know the bones of how Gerda worked.  The answer, in her own words, is in a book I ordered that has taken forever to arrive.

bookcover

This book is a bit of a sampler.  It includes material that can be found—in English! — in the common Book of Danish Stitchery, along with examples of her different subjects, and a nice selection of charts.

A painter, Gerda always started with a drawing or painting of a plant.  She traced that, adjusting bits and pieces here and there to make the design more clear.  She then placed graph paper over the tracing, fitting the lines of the squares to the drawing.  She then removed the drawing from beneath the graph paper and looked at her charted shapes.  Were the curves graceful?  Could something be better if it were moved over a stitch or two?

method

In the image to the right, she says that her effort B and C is an example of something she was not happy with.  In D and E, she adjusted how the curves broke against the boxes. The resulting shape is much more natural.

violetchart Once the shapes were right, she could choose the colors and create the chart.  This is one for a little tri-colored violet, part of a larger design.  The different symbols tell the stitcher what color each stitch should be.

Now, take a good look at that “tiny” little violet.  It is about one hundred and twenty-five stitches tall!  That is not a small design.  Sure, Gerda designed a lot of very simple designs that were much smaller, but to get the detail that lets one identify the plants to species, there have to be more stitches.  Sometimes many more.  Her very realistic, life-sized designs for some individual plants were more than a meter tall, worked multiple stitches to the centimeter.

And that is really what is holding me up.  I need to decide on size.  The first piece I want to do will be one that features a row of about twenty plants, something similar to the design from which the cover illustration of that book up there was taken.   I actually own a kit of that entire design, and the tallest plants are about 150 stitches tall.  There is a lot of stitching, even in the bits that look simple.  That is a reasonable size, though I might have to increase that to capture enough detail in the smaller plants.  Just how nuts do I want to go?  Do I want these plants life-size?  Bigger?  If I get all the detail I want in the tiny plants, how large does that make the tall ones?  How big is too big?

And then there is the whole complication of fabric.  With charted designs, the size of the finished product depends upon the fabric used–something stitched on a fabric with more stitches to the inch or centimeter or inch is going to be smaller than the same design stitched on coarser fabric.  I need to decide what fabric I want to use.  I have an entire yard  (about 36″ x 56″) of cream-colored, 16-stitches-to-the-inch evenweave coming that has been on backorder since the Pleistocene.  When it arrives, if that’s what I want to use, I’ll have to figure out how much of it I want to use and that will tell me how tall the tallest plants can be.

I think I am going to have to stop spinning my mental wheels, make myself some 11″ x 17″ inch graph paper with 1 mm squares, sketch a few designs, and just play around.  Right now, while the whole project is still in my head, it is  perfect.  The minute I actually start something, that’s when it gets real.  And messy.

And, I suppose, worth doing.

Who Was Gerda Bengtsson?

6dec4f77e9c7b21636749396967434b41716b42 Who was Gerda Bengtsson?  I was surprised to find that there isn’t much information available about this wonderful designer, a woman who had a lasting influence not only on the world of cross-stitch but on the arts of an entire nation.  Possibly, if I could read Danish, there would be much more.

Gerda Johanne  Bengtsson was born in Copenhagen on February 6, 1900 to Svend Bengtsson and Elise Lassen.  She was one of six children.  Both of her parents were teachers.  She started drawing at an early age, creating pencil portraits of family members.  Her parents supported her desire to become an artist.

At age nineteen, she began attending technical school—at  Frederiksberg Technical School in Copenhagen, if Google Translate is to be believed.  Between 1919 and 1924 she studied at the Danish Academy of Arts.  She studied painting, and in her final year sculpture as well.  Afterwards, she worked in the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Copenhagen as a painter.

A turning point in her career was her introduction painter and textile artist  Astrid Holm, who herself had studied with Matisse.   Astrid Holm was known for her bold colors, strong forms, and modern aesthetic, all of which characterize Gerda’s work as well.

The final nudge Gerda received that started her on the path that she would follow was her eight-month sojourn in Paris, where she visited the Cluny Museum and became enamored with the plants and animals depicted in Renaissance tapestries, particularly the Unicorn series.  She must have been fascinated by how the species in those woven masterpieces were stylized and simplified, yet instantly recognizable.

Gerda also studied with the Finnish weaver Essi Klingendal in the late 1920s and had her own weaving workshop in Copenhagen until 1939.  She produced floral motifs, but the pieces required so much yarn that their production was not profitable.

There had always been a strong tradition of embroidery among the women of the Danish royal family.  Queen Alexandrina created the Danish Handcraft Guild (Haandarbejdets Fremme or HF) in 1928, with the goal of preserving the traditions and techniques that were in danger of becoming lost.

In 1929, the Guild held an exhibition and some of Gerda’s watercolors from the Cluny museum were featured.  This led to the commissioning of some cross-stitch designs, the first being a rabbit leaping among flowers in the tapestry style.   She exhibited again in 1932.  This led to a proposal to interpret her designs in cotton thread on a natural canvas.  She was invited to take over the Guild’s embroidery class in 1939.  She closed her workshop, and from 1940 Gerda became one of the chief designers for the Guild, an association that would last the rest of her life.  She was their most prolific and best-known designer with her own busy workshop.  Although she designed many subjects, she became particularly known for her floral designs executed in cross stitch.  She became a member of the Danish Botanical Society and enjoyed her time in the field.

Gerda Bengtsson

 

Some of her early designs were meant to be worked in wool and to cover the entire ground fabric, but most of her 1,000 or so designs were meant for cotton thread on an unworked linen ground.  In 1930, Gerda worked with Einar Hansen to create a thread and a palette especially suited for Gerda’s floral designs.  These Dansk Blomstergarn (Danish Flower Threads) (worth a post of their own) are still available today, as are many of Gerda’s designs.

Gerda’s simple, colorful, modern designs were perfectly suited to the tastes of post-War decorators and crafters. She found inspiration in old samplers and other sources, but most of her work and the greatest part of her fame involved her interpretations of the Danish flora.  She had a gift for translating the essence and beauty of plants into charted designs that anyone could work.

Throughout her career, the Guild published many of her designs in book or booklet form.  Quite a few of these were translated into other languages.  In 1960, the Guild began publishing annual calendars with a cross-stitch design and pattern for each month.   A good number of these featured Gerda’s beautiful plants.  The Guild acquired many of her finished designs for its own collection.  Her sketches and watercolors were also prized.

currantsHer fame spread far beyond her home country.  At the Triennial in Milan in 1951,  she was awarded a gold medal for her design of currants.   As far as I know, she continued to design for the rest of her life.   She created at least a thousand designs for the Guild alone.

I have not been able to find out anything about Gerda’s personal life, so I don’t know if she ever married or had children.  A genealogy page for her lists parents and siblings but no spouse or children, so perhaps she remained single.  She died on December 13, 1995, which means that if I had had my act together, I could have met this remarkable painter and designer.

Gerda’s designs and books are still exceedingly popular across Europe, in Russia, in Japan, and in the U.S.  Just look her up on Pinterest and see how many thousands of pins there are on boards all over the world.  Her books (more on those later!) are highly collectible and the rarer calendars can fetch astronomical sums–if you can find them.

One fact from Gerda’s life stands out sharpest for me, astounds me, and makes me more than a little sad.  Though she spent her life designing cross-stitch patterns that countless stitchers the world over will treasure forever, Gerda herself was not an embroiderer.  She never stitched a single one.   They were all worked up by others in the Guild.

I can only hope that putting the final brush-stroke on a painting or charting the last perfect petal gave her the same pleasure that putting the final leg on that last cross stitch of one of her designs has given all of her fans.

Sources:

http://passionevera.blogspot.com/2009/05/gerda-bengtsson-ln30-4155.html

http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/40/origin/170/

Gerda Bengtsson’s Book of Danish Stitchery, 1972,  Van Nostrand Reinhold

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerda_Bengtsson

https://www.myheritage.dk/person-1002450_181693142_181693142/gerda-johanne-bengtsson-tegner#!events