5 August 2012

Vigeland Sculpture Park – Magnificent Obsession in Stone and Bronze

Mention Gustav Vigeland (left) to a Norwegian artist and the eyes generally glaze over with fondness – he has a special place in many hearts in his home country and particularly in the city of Oslo.

There in 1921 the sculptor was given a building by the city from which he would work and live for over twenty painstaking years.

He left behind him a remarkable sculpture park which serves as a testament both to the artist himself and the political and cultural renaissance of Norway.

Yet the park itself arose from a dispute.  The City of Oslo wanted to build a library.  Unfortunately the position of the new library just happened to be on the site of Vigeland’s home.  A lengthy dispute was eventually settled with the promise of a new home and workspace.  In return Vigeland committed himself to something quite extraordinary.  All of his work from there on in would be donated to the city. He was, while meticulous, prolific – perhaps Oslo got more than it originally bargained for.

As a result of this extraordinary contract between Vigeland and Oslo very little of his work has ever left Norway.  Yet if you only need one reason to visit the country – and there are many more – then his sculpture park might be just that excuse that you need.

It was certainly no small undertaking.  Eventually, by the time of Vigeland’s death in 1943 the park, which covers over 300 thousand square meters contained over two hundred sculptures by the artist.  A contemporary and friend of Rodin he experimented with modern forms of renaissance and ancient artwork.

His primary inspiration was the relationship between the two sexes, between the old and the young, between family members and the inexorable journey towards death which need not be an end in itself.  His studio in Nobels gate is close to Frogner Park (which is now mostly known as Vigeland Park).  His most famous work, the Monolith, is the culmination of his life’s work – 121 figures struggle to reach the pinnacle of the sculpture.

There is also a deep understanding here of both the conflict and the comfort which human relationships bring. The intrinsic duality of our connection with family and society is everywhere.

Vigeland’s work reveals the deep desolation which he experienced intensely all the way through his adult life. The notion of death recurs in many of his works, and his representations vary from melancholy and wretchedness to deep fondness and elation for its embrace.

Yet the park as a whole is much more about life and its journeys albeit inexorably married to death. Each group and individual sculpture represents one aspect or a specific stage in life – it is the journey of everyman represented in stone and bronze.  The nudity of the figures is, of course, symbolically intentional.  Nature and sculpture are united in a representation of humanity.  These sculptures have no shame and are unafraid of facing their own mortality.

No park would be complete without a fountain and Vigeland provides Oslo with a massive fabrication of 60 bronze reliefs.  Here we see children to skeletons who are held aloft in the sturdy arms of giant trees.  The implication is that nature is cyclical and that death brings forth new life.

Vigeland also designed the layout of the park and he did so to mirror a classical formal garden design.  This consists of two long walk ways which are set perpendicular to each other. Even the gates are a marvel.

There are contrasts implied and deliberate here. Human nature at its most terrible stands side by side with unquestioning love.  A formal park setting containing so many naked larger than life figures is one which heightens the drama of the place – and its ambiguities. The nakedness can discomfit.  In 2007 the city awoke to the bewildering site of each and every sculpture’s exposed parts covered by strips of black paper.

The sculptures are grouped on a single axis for the viewer’s ease and lead to the incredible centerpiece, the monolith.  This amazing spectacle of a column rises to over 17 meters and consists of 121 bare and intertwined figures.  The monolith totem elevates (literally) the whole circle of life message that the park conveys so fluently. Its thirty six figures illustrate the entire sequence of human life.

Although the contents of the park cover a period of over twenty years Vigeland’s creative achievement is one that can still provoke astonishment.  This was not simply an obsession, but a magnificent one.