Now on View: Ann Wolff

Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Been to the museum in the last six months? Then you have probably encountered some of the wacky and wonderful works of Ann Wolff! From engraved plates to charcoal drawings, Wolff’s ever-changing oeuvre—centered around the female figure in surreal or fantastical scenes—is filled with endless surprises. While they may be a little unsettling and challenging to comprehend, the longer I study them, the more enchanted I become. I find entertainment in their oddness, yes, but am also moved by their honesty. Therefore, I wanted to take a deep dive into the life and mind of the artist herself.

A glass sculpture with a flat plate. The red face of a man is centered in a woman's abstracted body.
Ann Wolff, German, b. 1937. Persona 1, Blown, etched, and painted glass, 2003. Purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund. 2022.417.a & .b. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA. 

An acclaimed designer and studio artist, Wolff has spent most of her adult life living and working in Transjö, Sweden. For many years, she was one of the most acclaimed designers for the famous Swedish glass company Kosta Boda. During this time, she also pursued an independent career as a studio artist, one of the first European glass designers to do so. 

Before working in glass, Wolff studied at the School for Fashion Design in Hamburg, Germany and then at the Academy of Design in Ulm, Germany, where she majored in visual communication. She entered the glass industry when she married the Swedish glass artist Goran Wärff. Accompanying him to Sweden, she worked from 1960 to 1970 as a designer of decorative and household glass, first for Pukeberg Glassworks in Nybro and then at Kosta Boda. After her divorce from Wärff in 1970, she established Studio Stenhytta with Wilke Adolfsson, a master glassblower from Orrefors, on the grounds of her home in Tranjö. There, Wolff quickly developed and popularized the technique of acid-etching, where an image is incised onto a glass blank by applying acid to its surface. This detailed process allowed Wolff to transfer her unusual figures onto the glass. Although she now prefers to work in metal and create charcoal drawings, Wolff notes that glass will always be a special canvas for art, “Glass is both material and non-material; it is real (there) and unreal (not there). Its relationship to the surrounding space and the inner space, the reflection of the occasional polished surfaces which allow new views, the effect of the light itself when seen through the sculpture–color as the vehicle for an invisible mass–all that is glass. That is exciting and fascinating for a sculptor like me.”

The subject of Wolff’s blown and engraved bowls, cast sculptures, drawings, and, most recently, metal and embroidered works is the life of women. The relationships and roles of women in society as friends, mothers, and daughters deeply concern her. 

“Self-evidence and Self-determination are found and accepted. Maybe witch, maybe goddess…”

Following her earliest experimental pieces from the late 1970s which focused on the family, in 1985, Wolff began her important WITCH OR GODDESS series. This body of work focuses on the duality of the female archetype in art and society, where a woman is often depicted as either a devious tempter of men (witch) or an ultimate being of beauty (goddess). Confidence and independence heighten these gendered attributes, making women a threat to some and powerful beings of worship to others. On this point, the artist muses, “Self-evidence and Self-determination are found and accepted. Maybe witch, maybe goddess…”

A glass sculpture with a flat plate. The red face of a man is centered in a woman's abstracted body.
Ann Wolff, German, b. 1937. Persona 1, Blown, etched, and painted glass, 2003. Purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund. 2022.417.a & .b. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA. 

The FWMoA holds one of these pieces in our permanent collection, part of the gifted Beling Collection exhibition this summer. While no longer on view, a younger cousin to it, Persona I, is currently on display in our new glass wing. This stunning piece draws from and expands upon themes prevalently explored in Wolff’s earliest series. A large-nosed, central red face looms over a blue figure with a triangular body and stick-like limbs. It appears the blue figure’s mouth has fallen from its usual place to the genital area, leaving behind an “x” and a worried expression. To the right, a phallic spear is approaching, making its way for the newly located lips. Cascading down the clear base are a series of other etched female figures, designated by their pointed breasts.

Like many artists, Wolff intends for her pieces to be somewhat ambiguous. She does, however, tap into some universal themes and elements that help us understand her purpose; for example, due to the gendered associations of color, we can infer that the red face is female while the blue figure is male. This is further emphasized by the blue figure’s lack of breasts. The large nose of the red face could be a reference to the stereotypical image of a witch in western tradition, who is often depicted as an older woman with a hooked nose (in other works by Wolff this feature is even more prominent). By creating this work as a circular plate held by a nearly invisible clear base we are reminded of a mask, a guise we have all adopted at some point. 

Four goddesses in a landscape. One appears in bird form, another carries a baby in the shape of a fish.
Ann Wolff, German, b. 1937. Small Goddesses, Intaglio vitreograph, 1984. Gift of John Littleton and Kate Vogel. 2021.382. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

In addition to glass, Wolff is also a prolific maker of drawings. Just before she began experimenting with her WITCH OR GODDESS glass series, the artist was invited to participate in an experimental vitreograph, or glass printing plate, workshop ran by Studio Glass pioneer Harvey Littleton. In the current exhibition Vitreographs: Collaborative Prints from Littleton Studios, Ann Wolff showcases the artist’s ability to transfer her spontaneous line drawings into print form. 

In the above 1984 print titled Small Goddesses, Wolff again focuses on the idea of the female idol—yet her idea of venerated women is rather different than the beautiful, young, and sensuous muses in, say, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The farthest goddess on the left features a bird head with a long, trailing tongue while the goddess on the right has an elongated head with multiple sets of eyes and seems to be carrying a baby with a fish body (great stuff). It is important to note that these women, demarcated as such by their breasts and female genitalia, are not idealized in any way. All have small, rather drooping breasts, straight bodies, and, in some cases, prominent stomachs. Their eyes have noticeable shadows and several have unibrows; however, by labeling them as “goddesses”, clearly the artist believes they are important and should be venerated. 

What is the takeaway from these pieces? When asked about the meaning of her work, Wolff stated that the figures speak for themselves, “They tell me, ‘I’m ready!’ and that is when I stop drawing.” When asked if her work is self-referential she remarked, “It is natural to take oneself as one’s starting point. The situation of women partly determines who I am and leads me to pose particular questions.” Overall, these artworks reveal their narrative potential as investigations of the female self during an age of changing feminist thought. Whether enjoyed from a feminist or humorous perspective, the whimsical ability of Ann Wolff’s work to spark conversation will never cease. 

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