Angels, devils, dragons, and monsters are just a few of the unruly creatures that maraud across Anna Torma’s delightfully chaotic textiles. The Hungarian-Canadian artist’s multicolored, swirling scenes are filled with semi-clothed human-animal crossovers tangled together in curious acts of sex and mischief. Inspired by fairy tales, children’s drawings, Hungarian folklore, and medieval legends, Torma’s playful, hand-sewn worlds present an especially engrossing escape from the bleakness of everyday pandemic life.
Permanent Danger, the artist’s major solo show at the Textile Museum of Canada, showcases works from the last two decades of Torma’s 40-year career. The exhibition takes its title from a wall-sized 2017 tapestry covered with meticulously stitched, fire-breathing beasts. “You can feel the energy that’s bound up in these things,” exhibition curator and museum Curatorial Director Sarah Quinton said in a recent video call. For her, Torma’s fantastical works are actually “an antenna out into the world that deal with concerns around the environment, global warming, and unknown threats that do exist.”
Torma was born in 1952 in Tarnaörs, a village in northern Hungary. Her first contact with art came from her parents: her father painted landscapes and still lifes when he wasn’t farming, and her mother and grandmothers taught the young artist regional needleworking techniques used to prepare a young woman’s bridal trousseau. Torma’s facility with class drawing assignments and skill with sewing doll clothes were early signs of her artistic path. “I have always been smart with my hands,” Torma told Hyperallergic in a video call from her New Brunswick studio. Torma, whose sunny studio is filled with potted plants and piles of new works, is shy but quick to smile, and speaks in a soft, melodic voice.
In the 1970s, Torma studied Textile Art and Design at the Hungarian University of Applied Arts in Budapest. She chose to focus on textile — a medium with domestic associations often considered to be women’s work — while feminist art practices gained traction around the world. But Hungary’s insular, anti-capitalist political climate made it nearly impossible to travel or have access to information about international art currents at the time. “The outside came to us in books and translations,” Torma explained. “To grow in this little Hungarian Socialist bubble was very pleasant until we saw the edges of that bubble and said, it must be bigger.”
In 1988, Torma and her husband, the sculptor István Zsakó, immigrated to Canada with their two young children, who are also now working artists. In Canada, Torma “seamlessly integrated the traditional needle work of her Hungarian formal training and that of earlier generations of stitchers, but upended it and implicated these traditions in a much more contemporary, expressive, individualistic form,” Quinton said.
The busy surfaces of Torma’s large cotton, linen, and silk textiles can take years to complete. Nonetheless, their rainbow colors and rich textures vibrate with a sense of spontaneity, as if they capture a fleeting moment from a dream. As in dreams, Torma’s textiles bring together a disturbing mix of images and sensations. A male figure’s inflated erection and a set of disembodied, gnashing teeth are just two of the many small but potent cues throughout Torma’s work that confound an easy reading of what’s happening, blurring the line between good and bad. Whether they attract or repel us, Torma’s fanciful, wild things express the breath of their creator’s imagination: the figures “come very easily from my fantasy,” she declared.
However, Torma’s wondrous visions are rooted in a kind of reality. In “Party with Dionysos” (2008-2015), the artist corrals her flying, crawling critters with a thick border of flowers, and in “Permanent Danger” (2017), slithering snakes, sword-wielding warriors, and naked sirens are surrounded by fig leaves and blooming flowers. Torma’s botanical motifs ground her whimsical imagery in the observable world and pay tribute to her passion for nature. “I draw most keenly the flowers from my garden,” Torma stated. “Gardens 1 and Gardens 2” (both 2018) are purely plant-based, with graceful, stitched outlines of branches topped with sewn flowers and cuttings from printed floral fabrics. The exhibition shows Torma gradually moving from imagination to observation, and finally towards a new way of presenting her life and work.
For decades, Torma has collected found textile objects like crochet doilies, embroidery samplers, lace, appliqué, and fabric clippings. Some of her favorites appear in her Personal Ribbon (2020) series. In these works, textile objects like scraps of traditional Hungarian embroidery and a fabric photograph of the artist’s grandparents are arranged along strips of hemp cloth. Collectively, the sequenced artefacts form a sort of exhibition within an exhibition of the artist’s personal and material points of origin. Unlike her previous works, these place Torma’s biography at their center. “Activities with textile are always very personal,” the artist said, and with these works, “I invite you to my life in a private way.”
The Personal Ribbon series signals a new direction for Torma, but it also reinforces the way her practice takes in and synthesizes the influences and events around her. “The world really is physically, materially present in her work as much as the imagination,” Quinton emphasized. Like the marvelous creatures in her textiles, Torma is a unique hybrid of her own creation who continues to evolve.
Permanent Danger continues at the Textile Museum of Canada (55 Centre Ave, Toronto, Ontario) through March 20. The exhibition will travel to the Art Gallery of Guelph (Ontario) and to the Owens Art Gallery (Sackville, New Brunswick) later this year.