The human figures at a palatial Oslo sculpture park bare the essence of Norway.
The last time we saw Julie Norveel, she was waving goodbye before boarding her flight home to Oslo, weeping with the unbridled emotion typical of teenage girls everywhere. But she wasn’t the only one crying. During the year we had hosted her in our home as an exchange student, Julie had become a daughter to my husband and me and a sister to our two teens.
She’d arrived in Arlington the previous August eager to soak up American culture. As fully as she integrated, though, she never lost her Norwegian essence — a freespirited sensibility, a strong connection to nature and powerful ties to family and tradition.
A few years later, during a visit to Norway last summer, I was able to truly appreciate those values. They’re reflected in one of the country’s most beloved attractions: the Vigeland installation, or Vigelandsanlegget, a collection of more than 200 naked human figures formed from granite or bronze. Set within Oslo’s 80-acre Frogner Park, Vigelandsanlegget is a national treasure that attracts more than a million visitors a year.
With its palatial lawns and brimming gardens, its fountains and ornate gates, and its outdoor swimming pool, playground and adjacent museum, Frogner is a lush home for the collection.
Naturally, it was our first stop during our week-long visit to Norway (on a typical summer day: overcast with sprinkles). As we entered the park, Julie — now a 21-year-old business student — smiled at the Italian, Japanese and German tour groups and paused to watch a set of parents chase their young daughter around the granite pieces.
Not so many years ago, she was that little girl. “I grew up playing on these sculptures,” she said. “There would be tons of kids playing, and the grown-ups would sit nearby drinking coffee from the cafe.”
And as a teenager, “me andmy friends would come to hang out. It was great because we could get here by Metro. We’d sit in the grass and try to get some sun. Someone would bring a little barbecue and we’d grill hot dogs. We’d play volleyball and football and Kubb,” a popular lawn game.
All this activity would revolve around the sculpture collection, part of a vast body of work by Gustav Vigeland, a Norwegian. It was produced, improbably, after a dispute between the artist and the city of Oslo, which wanted to demolish his house. In 1921, the artist received from the city a new building near Frogner Park and, in return, agreed to donate all his subsequent works to the city. Besides a studio, the space included an apartment for him and his family, including a library, bedrooms and a lavatory (a somewhat uncommon feature in those days). Vigeland lived and worked there until his death in 1943.
During those years, which included a period when Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany, the artist — often directing other stone carvers — created the spectacular array that we see today: lifelike forms set in a variety of poses and situations. Some of the figures, which are human scale or slightly larger, are alone, some are in pairs. Still others are in groups or set upon or among natural elements such as trees.
They’re walking, running, holding hands, snuggling babies. They’re dreaming, problem-solving, chuckling, roaring with rage. They’re lovers knitted into an embrace, they’re parents comforting children, they’re old men torqued by the brittleness of age. Realistically and in the abstract, they depict the breadth of human experience.
I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that the (nearly) anatomical correctness of the naked figures is initially startling. But the nudity is intended to evoke a human essence beyond time and space, says Vigeland Museum director Jarle Stromodden. “The general public — and these are visitors from all over the world — understands and accepts their nudity within that context,” he says. Indeed, we found that the very raw beauty of the human form elicits feelings of peaceful wonder — a mixture of “wow!” and “ahhhh!” underscored by the knowledge that we’ll never see a display like this back home.
Vigeland’s body of work includes woodcuts, drawings, iron works, and art and crafts such as weavings, some of which can be seen in the museum. He created several public monuments across Scandinavia and designed the medal for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Norway.
Yet he didn’t attract much worldwide attention. “While he wasn’t regarded as an important sculptor in the art world,” Stromodden says, “his achievements in the park are recognized and appreciated.”
And not just in Scandinavia. “He speaks to visitors in different ways,” says Stromodden, recounting a recent conversation with the wife of the Thai ambassador to Norway. “People from Japan, China and Thailand, for example, they find elements in the park that others don’t see as much. It relates to the cyclic elements of the park and sculptures and has something to do with their belief in reincarnation. We tend to think of life as birth and death, while others don’t believe it ends there.”
One of the best-known pieces is the bronze statue called “Angry Boy” (“Sinnataggen” in Norwegian), which depicts a toddler in full meltdown: fists clenched, foot stomping, face contorted in frustration. It’s a stance that is recognized— and dreaded, in real life— by parents everywhere. The statue’s left hand is burnished, worn down by the rumor that to touch it is to invite good luck.
The Fountain, one of the earliest pieces installed in the park, features a huge bronze basin held high in the air by six giants of various ages. Water gushes, like a screen, over the top of the basin, pooling near their feet before continuing down.
The Monolith (or Monolitten), set in the park in 1943, is the collection’s focal point. Standing more than 45 feet high and carved from a single piece of granite, it features 121 human figures — men, women, children and babies, pivoting around an imaginary axis in a tangle of torsos and limbs.
Interpretations of the piece vary: It represents man’s resurrection, maybe, or the struggle for existence. Some say it shows human desire to reach out to the divine, or the transcendence of everyday life and cyclic repetition. However, when Vigeland was asked to explain the meaning of the work, he was cryptic: “He replied, ‘ This is my religion,’ ” says Stromodden. “To me, this is both an interesting and an irritating response.”
And Vigeland put only simple descriptions, not titles, on his sculptures. “In doing so,” Stromodden says, “Vigeland intended to make them open to the spectators’ interpretations. I think that’s a generous gesture.”
Those interpretations may be drawn from the position of a body, the flow of the hair, the downturn of a lip. Posture and facial expressions speak to an array of universal emotions from birth to old age. “The best thing about these sculptures is that you can recognize some of your own feelings here, no matter how old you are,” Julie says.
Her grandmother, Milda Augusta Leirskar, remembers her first look at the collection. It was 1956, and she was a 21-year-old culinary student in Oslo, down in the big city from a farm in her home town of Krokstrand, some 650 miles to the north. With Julie’s mother translating for me from the Norwegian, Milda, now 80, says what she most remembers from that first visit is her awe at how Vigeland “expresses love, anxiousness, anger and trust — all from stone.”
When sculptor Gustav Vigeland was asked to explain the meaning of his work, he was cryptic:
“This is my religion.”
In Oslo’s scenic Frogner Park is the Vigeland installation, a collection of famously fascinating, at times startling statues of the naked human form at all ages of life, below. The pinnacle is 121 intertwined bodies that form theMonolith, reaching 45 feet high, above.