Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) is a Norwegian sculptor whose work portrays the full range of the human life cycle and the wonderful diversity of intimate relationships among men, women and children of all ages—truly the family of humankind.
I’ve long known Vigeland’s sculpture in photographs, but until this fall had never seen any in person. Very little of it has left Norway, partly due to an extraordinary contract Vigeland made with the city of Oslo in 1921. He was given a new and capacious studio and home near the center of the city, and in exchange, he agreed to bequeath to Oslo all works in his possession as well as all original models of future sculptures. He lived and worked there from 1924 until his death in 1943. Over that enormously productive 20 years, with Vigeland’s design and direction, grew an 80-acre sculpture park and museum entirely devoted to his work.
The sheer scope of Vigeland’s creative accomplishment is astonishing. The park contains 192 sculptures in granite and bronze, with more than 600 figures. The museum—housed in the building originally erected as studio and home—includes some 1600 sculptures, 12,000 drawings and 400 woodcuts.
Vigeland designed the park in the likeness of a classical European formal garden: two long and wide gravel walk ways set perpendicularly to each other. Sculptures are grouped largely on one axis, gathered along a bridge, around a large fountain, and leading up stone steps to the tall, visually arresting centerpiece, Vigeland’s “monolith,” a column of 121 intertwined naked figures rising to a height of over 17 meters.
In the warmer months of temperate Oslo weather the formality of the garden is softened and enlivened by the green of great maple trees lining the walkways, flowing water, ivy climbing stone walls, and a profusion of flowering plants. In late autumn, the time of our visit, the effect was more stark than lovely. Profoundly embodied feelings of the pairs and groups of adults and children contrast sharply with their gray, monumental surround.
Some of that contrasting effect—unclothed intimacy in formal setting—is surely a deliberate part of Vigeland’s design. The scale of his human figures is larger than life size, their limbs and expressions deliberately stylized, heightening both drama and ambiguity.
John R. Boettiger