The hu­man fig­ures at a pala­tial Oslo sculp­ture park bare the essence of Nor­way.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ALEXAN­DRA ROCKEY FLEM­ING travel@wash­post.com Alexan­dra Rockey Flem­ing is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist in Ar­ling­ton. Her first book, “Full of Heart,” was writ­ten with Iraq War vet­eran J.R. Martinez.

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.”

KLAUS NOWOTTNICK/PIC­TURE-AL­LIANCE/DDEUTSCHE PRESSE-AGENTUR VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

ROBERT B. FISH­MAN/PIC­TURE-AL­LIANCE/DEUTSCHE PRESSE-AGENTUR VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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