Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) may just be Norway’s most important artist you’ve never heard of. There are very few works by this talented sculptor outside his native country, the result of an arrangement Vigeland made with the Oslo City Council in 1921. Vigeland agreed to bequeath all his works to the city in exchange for the lifetime use of a studio and apartment specially built for him at Frogner.
For the last two decades of his life, Vigeland lived and worked in this space; after his death, it became the Vigeland Museum, now one of Oslo’s top attractions along with the adjacent sculpture park.
Vigeland was born in the small community of Mandal at the southern tip of Norway. At the age of 15 he moved to Kristiania (Oslo) to apprentice with a woodcarver. His father’s early death forced the young Gustav to return home for a few years to help support his family, but once back in Kristiania he managed to gain the attention of the sculptor Brynjulf Bergslien, who undertook to assist Vigeland with both financial and artistic support. In 1889, Vigeland made his artistic debut at the Norwegian State Exhibition with the sculpture group Hagar and Ishmael.
Over the following decades, Vigeland honed his skill both at home and with extended stays in Denmark, France, Italy, and England. Despite his talent, making a living as a sculptor proved difficult. From the late 1890s until 1902, for economic reason, Vigeland accepted a series of commissions as part of the restoration of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim; ultimately, Vigeland produced 44 sculptures for the project, including seven painted statues carved in oak and various reliefs and gargoyles.
The first decades of the 20th century saw Vigeland establish himself as one of Norway’s finest sculptors. He became particularly well known for his portrait busts and monuments, and eventually for his stylistically more simplified granite carvings of human figures. It was around 1914 that Vigeland first conceived the idea for what eventually became the monumental Vigeland Park.
The Museum and Park
Upon Vigeland’s death, as stipulated in his contract with the city of Oslo, all the artist’s works became municipal property, and the studio was converted into a museum. The Vigeland Museum houses approximately 1,600 sculptures, 420 woodcuts, and 12,000 drawings, as well as other artifacts such as notebooks, photographs, books, and thousands of letters belonging to Vigeland.
Although the park and museum can be visited separately and in any order, visiting the museum is good preparation for a walk through the park since it gives insights into Vigeland’s life and work. The collection includes the original plaster models for the sculptures and monuments in the Vigeland Park, which are works of art in themselves and well worth seeing before viewing the more than 200 finished sculptures in bronze, granite, and wrought iron that are displayed in the park.
The sculptures in the Vigeland Park are placed in groups along a series of paths, making it easy to walking through the collection. Entering through the main gate, you come to a bridge lined with 58 bronze sculptures of adults and children in a variety of situations. One of the most popular figures is the Angry Boy (“Sinnataggen”), whose left hand has been polished gold by the touch of millions of visitors.
Beyond the bridge is the Fountain, a massive sculpture of six men holding up a large basin. Surrounding the Fountain, 20 bronze groups of trees and human figures represent the neverending circle of life.
The highest point in the park is the Monolith, an intricate pillar with 121 figures carved from a single block of granite. The imagery is said to represent humanity’s yearning for a higher spiritual plane. Around the Monolith are 36 large granite groups of figures depicting human relationships of various kinds.
Other sculptures are scattered throughout the park, but the final major work, located to the west of the Monolith, is the Wheel of Life, a bronze sculpture of human figures holding onto each other in an upright circle.
Vigeland Museum: Nobels gate 32, Oslo, www.vigeland.museum.no
Vigeland Park: Main entrance from Kirkeveien in the Majorstua/Frogner neighborhood.