Oslo’s Vigeland Sculpture Park: A Celebration of Humanity
By Dave Fox
Mention sculpture parks and I don’t often get excited, but Vigeland’s Park in Oslo is my favorite park, hands down, anywhere in the world.
A short tram ride uphill from the city center, Vigeland’s Park (officially called the “Vigeland Sculpture Arrangement,” though few people in Oslo call it that) contains 212 bronze and granite sculptures of humans in various poses. They span the full spectrum of ages – from a “kindergarten” area with infants crawling around an upside-down fetus, to men and women in their senior years.
What makes Vigeland’s work so magical is his ability to show real life. All of the bodies are naked, but they aren’t idealized like you see in typical Greek and Roman art. Some are flabby. Some are wrinkly. There’s a vast range of emotions. Many are smiling. Some are playing joyfully or gazing dreamily at each other. Others, however, look angry, sad, ashamed, or full of angst.
Born in southern Norway in 1869, Vigeland was fascinated with the cycle of life, and with relationships between generations. Some of his statues show parents and children playing. Others show parents and children in sullen standoffs.
“Sinnataggen” (“The Angry Kid”) is a local favorite of Vigeland’s bronze castings. A fed-up toddler stands on one foot, fists clenched in defiance as he has an epic meltdown. I went to pay the kid a visit on one of my many walks through the park when I was studying at the University of Oslo in 1992. The next day, he was on the front page of Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper. He had been stolen – sawed off at the foot. (I swear, I didn’t do it.) He was recovered eleven days later – laying in a parking lot, still screaming.
One of my favorite of Vigeland’s granite works demonstrates the stresses of motherhood, as two kids ride on their mother’s back, giggling as they steer her with a rope. It’s a playful piece that always draws laughs from onlookers. More touching statues include awkward moments between parents and their adolescent offspring, and two elderly men comforting each other.
The park’s centerpiece is a monolith unlike any other monolith you’ll ever see. It depicts 121 bodies, climbing on each other in an effort to reach the top. Some are struggling, while others seem to be floating effortlessly upward, demonstrating that some people in life have it easier than others. Chiseled from a 450-ton block of Norwegian granite, it stands 14 meters tall and took 13 years to complete.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the monolith is not the focal point of Vigeland’s original concept. His grand idea of a sprawling park covering 80 had more humble beginnings. In 1900, at age 31, Vigeland presented a design to the Norwegian government for a fountain he hoped might be placed in a square somewhere in Oslo. The government was impressed, and decided to place it in front of the Parliament building. As Vigeland worked on the fountain, his vision grew into a concept far too large for the original space. After much debate, he was given a swatch of land inside the larger Frogner Park.
The fountain is one of the best examples in the park of Vigeland’s fascination with the cycle of life. While most eyes gravitate to where the water flows – a centerpiece, held up by six struggling men – it’s the more subtle works at the corners around the base that are most exciting. Each corner shows people sitting in or around trees, representing humankind’s entanglement with nature. Facing the fountain (approaching from the main entrance), the close, right-hand corner shows kids playing and having fun. Move to the close left corner and you see adolescents. While two teenagers glance lovingly at each other, another girl covers her breasts, confused or ashamed about puberty. Circle onward to the far left corner and you see adults with melancholy expressions as life’s bigger stresses take hold. Finally, on the far right, older people mingle with toddlers, signifying that the cycle of life is constantly completed and renewing. Symbolically, you could circle repeatedly around the fountain and see a representation of generation after generation.
On the ground surrounding the monolith plateau is a labyrinth, also designed by Vigeland. Laid out as a mosaic with two different colors of granite, the labyrinth’s pathway is an astounding three kilometers long.
More astounding are the iron gates near the plateau. They too are Vigeland’s creation. Using a minimum of iron on a two-dimensional plane, he captures a stunning sense of three-dimensionality in the curves and musculature of the women and men.
If you see only one sight in Oslo, Vigeland’s Park is my top pick. I’ve been there dozens of times, and especially loved visiting in the winter when I lived in Oslo. The snow would crunch beneath my feet, yet muffle the rest of the city’s sounds. The gray granite against the white, wintry backdrop had a comforting starkness about it.
In the summer, the park is a great place for a picnic. You’ll see lots of families with kids. And often, you’ll see kids climbing on the statues. When I was guiding a tour there one time, someone in my group asked my why they allowed that. Why didn’t the police or a park guard tell the children to stay off the statues?
I had no solid answer to her question, but I thought for a minute about Vigeland’s vision and observations of life. Climbing and playing on statues, I told the woman in my group, is what kids instinctively want to do. And the park is a celebration of humanity. Letting kids climb on his statues? I think Vigeland would have wanted it this way.