Travel: Oslo, Norway

by David Hill / 30 March, 2016
A park populated by hundreds of bronze and granite figures symbolising the human condition.
Life’s work: some of Gustav Vigeland’s hundreds of human figures in Oslo. Photo/Getty Images
Life’s work: some of Gustav Vigeland’s hundreds of human figures in Oslo. Photo/Getty Images

They’re among the most lumpen public statues in the world. They’re also among the most popular. Vigeland sculpture park in Central Oslo is just a couple of kilo­metres from the Royal Palace. Go by bus, tram, or on disoriented feet as I did. It’s open every day, costs nothing to enter and draws a million visitors each year. People come to see the lawns, maples, artificial lakes and gravel avenues. But mostly they come to stare at local lad Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures.

There are nearly 200 works, comprising 600 granite or bronze figures, in Frogner Park’s 40ha. All were modelled by the artist, whose museum, with more than 1600 more statues and his ashes, is just five minutes’ walk away. It’s open at idiosyncratic hours and does cost – about $15. There’s also a cafe: a Norwegian cafe with French pastries.

Vigeland designed the park’s layout and setting. Indeed he was versatile. And obsessive, abrasive, grandiose. It took years of vindictive debate before the Oslo Municipal Council in 1922 approved his plans for a sculpture park that would express – ready? – “the struggles and aspirations of humanity from birth to death” (plus a bit on both sides).

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Carving and placing the statues took another two decades, right up to Vigeland’s death in 1943. The result is astonishing – and sometimes appalling. Walk through the big iron gates and you’re on a broad avenue leading to a bridge on whose parapets larger-than-lifesize, often overblown bronze figures are mounted. Some are tranquil: an old man leads a child by the hand; a girl spreads out her long hair; a man and woman dance gravely side by side. Some are violent: one man flings a woman over his back; another tosses and kicks kids in all directions.

They’re all massive, thick-waisted, nude but very, very unsexy. Their faces are masks, expressionless or contorted.

The children, here and in the playground below, are more conventional and appealing. They squat, roll on their backs, look up enquiringly. The park’s most famous single figure is a little bronze boy on the bridge, stamping his foot in rage. His hand and his … XY chromosomes are shiny from where people keep stroking them.

Across the bridge rises a big fountain in the middle of which a ring of giants support a huge bronze bowl. At the corners of the fountain pool, 2m-high Trees of Life in bronze hold other figures that posture through the human ages and stages.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

So in one corner, the Tree is filled with infants. Then come adolescents, a young man and woman, a remarkable rendering of a couple plummeting through the branches, a furious man apparently hurling children to the ground and a skeleton.

A frieze below repeats the motif, ending with a scary scene of Death forcing a couple apart, and then a heap of mouldering bones out of which spirits of the new-born rise.

Finally, you climb broad, processional steps to the Monolith Plateau. Like everything else in the park, it’s heroic in scale – 120m by 60m of stone. From its centre soars a six-storey slab of Norwegian granite weighing 180 tonnes. The 121 writhing, creeping, struggling figures that cover it took three carvers 15 years to complete. Yes, Vigeland does call to one’s inner statistician.

The result is repulsive and fascinating. Some see it as an emblem of resurrection. To others, its agonised stack of bodies suggests the horrors of concentration camps.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Around the monolith are more tableaux of life’s stages, in granite this time. They range again from babies to powerful scenes of stoic old age. And once more, they feature full-frontal ugliness and cruelty. Two boys torment a special needs man; adults wrench at terrified kids.

Ironically, some of the park’s most attractive works are seen as you leave. They’re the tall bronze gates behind the Monolith Plateau, with quiet, harmonious groups of figures from childhood to maturity.

Whether you see Vigeland’s work in Oslo’s long summer light at 11pm, or when the statues are deep in winter snow, there’s no denying its drama. And where else do you get public sculpture that manages to evoke ­Ghiberti and Garden Centre, Donatello and Disney?

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