This is the eighth article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
If you visit Oslo, the capital of Norway, every guide will take you to the Vigeland park. As soon as the covid-19 has passed, you are very welcome! Here you will see the greatest collection of sculptures in Norway, a park with more than 200 sculptures, all made by one artist, Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), who also made the architectural outline of the park. Entrance is free and the park is open 24 hours a day throughout the year. More than a million people visit annually.
The park has sculptures from all periods of Gustav Vigeland’s art, and they are symmetrically situated in the art deco designed park. In an axis of 850 meter you can walk from the east to the west, passing sculptures in bronze, wrought iron and granite. It’s an ode, a lyric song to life.
Entering the park, you need to come to terms with stark nakedness. Nearly 200 statues of naked people of all ages, from the new-born to the dying in old age. It may be a help to start focusing on the faces of the people, since they are uniquely expressing sentiments of life. Gradually you may see that the body language is one with the facial expressions. A story tells of a young boy who visited the park with his father. When they left, he exclaimed: “Dad, we won’t tell anyone that we have been here!”
The wrought iron gates are constructed from Gustav Vigeland’s drawings. The centre of the park is a massive fountain in bronze, carried by gigantic men of different ages, all of them lifting in different ways, perhaps symbolizing the struggle we all have in life. The water from the fountain falls into a square basin. The sound of the waterfall and the fresh air it creates, is an important part of the park. Surrounding the fountain are 21 complex sculptures with a tree, the tree of life, surrounded by people from childhood to adolescent, adulthood, old age and death. Flowers in geometric fields creates colours and fragrance to the park. 14000 roses of 150 different sorts makes for an art and garden experience of high value.
At the highest point in the park a monolith is built, an almost 17-meter-high block of granite, erected over a period of 13 years, carved by three stoneworkers. They had Vigeland’s models of 121 figures to copy. The figures are climbing or floating upwards, a symbol for people seeking for spiritual values. Vigeland said that the monolith symbolised his own religion.
The monolith is placed on top of a hill with a great stair. On the way up, family groups, each made out of one block of granite, show children, young people, men and women, elderly people.
The figures could symbolize the faith and joy in the young Norwegian state from 1905, in work for independence, freedom and identity. It shows people in love, faith and fight, life and death. Most of the figures don’t wear any cloths that can identify them as of a specific time or social status. They are timeless, formed in the different styles of Gustav Vigeland’s art, all based on studies of the human body.
Visitors like to find their favourite sculpture and take a selfie in front of them.
Vigeland studied all forms of sculpturing. In Copenhagen as well as on travels, he studied classism inspired from the old antic marble and sandstone sculptures. He made his income from portraying well-known people. In a period, he worked at the reconstruction of Nidarosdomen, the gothic cathedral in Trondheim, but he soon got tired of copying old sculptures and moved to Oslo. In Oslo, he met the realism introduced by Mathias Skeibrok’s art, and in France he met the impressionism of Auguste Rodin. He wanted to create a new Nordic free art, based on ideas of modernism.
Gustav Vigeland lived and worked in the time when Norway gained independence. He was very ambitious, and his ideas of how art that could give shape to the new nation was popular. In 1919 he entered into a unique agreement with Oslo Municipality. He would be given a studio with workshops for him and his craftsmen as well as a house for him and his family. After his death, the buildings were to become a museum for Gustav Vigeland and his art. In return he gave all his artworks, still in his possession, and all future artworks to the municipality. The house with workshops were finished in 1924. Around the same time the site for the sculptures was decided and Vigeland could start the planning of the outline of the park. Most of the sculptures were made and placed in their present position between 1940 and 1950 but it contains the work of 40 years and was completed years after Vigeland’s death in 1943.
Oslo Municipality could now plan for the great Vigeland park. They already owned many of the sculptures that would be placed in the park.
Gustav Vigeland was brought up in a family of craftsmen. The tradition for woodcarving was well known in Norway. Houses and furniture were decorated with wood carvings. This was Vigeland’s first art activity. Teachers who recognized his talent, helped him to develop his skills, first in Oslo and later in cities of Europe. He studied sculpturing and quickly developed to the same level as his teachers. One of his professors told him he was not able to teach him anything more. “Now you must go to Mathias Skeibrok,” he said. (see our previous article on Skeibrok here). Vigeland was Skeibrok’s last and best-known student and they developed a close friendship. When Skeibrok was serious ill, Vigeland became his assistant teacher at Oslo Art Academy and helped him finish the decoration at the front wall of the University Hall.
No artist in Norway has been given similar opportunities to practice and exhibit his art as Gustav Vigeland. His extraordinary talent was supported by rich sponsors, by the municipality and by the state. All other sculptors in Norway at that time lived in the shadow of two art projects: the reconstruction of the cathedral Nidarosdomen in Trondheim, and the construction of the Vigeland Park in Oslo. It was an important part of the nation building. Most skilled sculptors had to fend for themselves in the reconstruction of Nidarosdomen.
Vigeland Park was for Gustav Vigeland only. His genius was overwhelming. Other artists at the same time were very often ignored. He is still the internationally best-known sculptor from Norway.
Text: Alfred Vaagsvold