OSLO’S ASTONISHING VIGELAND SCULPTURES -- A CELEBRATION OF HUMAN BODIES AND THE CYCLE OF LIFE
In Oslo, unfortunately, I ran into some bad weather in the form of steady rain and the first cold breaths of winter coming on. But that did not prevent me from having a revisit with the amazing Vigeland sculptures located in Oslo’s Frogner Park. The Vigeland sculptures are the apotheosis of a distinctly Scandinavian sensibility regarding health and human bodies. Oslo is a land of sculpture, and every park, many street corners, even private dwellings, seem to be studded with sculptures, old and new, traditional and modern, with a fair number of them showing naked figures, reflecting the Norwegian sentiment that reveling in the flesh is a sign of health, not license. This refreshing esteem for human bodies shorn of pretense and artifice is expressed in surprising ways.
One day in Oslo I saw the front page of a daily newspaper with a huge color photo showing ten bust-baring, smiling women. But this was not a Hugh Hefner product or a Rupert Murdoch, page-three cheesecake photo, like those that marinate many British dailies. No, most of these women were at least sixty years old, many of them older and wizened. A new form of erotica for the elderly, I wondered? Hardly. Each of the women was missing one of her breasts. All of them were breast-cancer survivors who were unabashedly sharing their stories during a week of breast-cancer awareness. And their topless group photo was right there on the front page of a major daily newspaper, surgical scars and all. These modern-day Amazons smiled into the camera unashamedly, fearlessly, because health and naked bodies are Norwegian values that are inextricably entwined. There is something about it that smacks one as being very balanced, sane, and, well, healthy.
The Vigeland sculptures are the pinnacle of these cultural representations of health and the human body. My first encounter with the Vigeland sculptures several years before had been near to a religious experience, basking in the presence of genius. My return visit accompanied by my Oslo friend Chris Skovsgaard did not disappoint, despite having to view everything through a veil of rain and from under the dome of a large umbrella.
The park contains 192 separate sculptures with more than 600 human figures, all life-size or larger, by the brilliant sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Vigeland expertly rendered his human figures, casting them into bronze or carving them in granite, over a period of nearly four decades, between 1907 and 1942. The outstanding signature of his monumental body of work is the way the hundreds of sculpted men, women, and children are portrayed in various stages of life—male and female adults, young adults, adolescents, toddlers and infants, even a fetus, and finally the elderly and a decomposing skeleton of death. The entire cycle of life is represented, from birth through adolescence through maturation to demise, in all its multiple joys, sadness, and eternalness. All of the sculptures are naked, not a stitch of clothing on any of them, yet the display is modest and appropriately engaging, not lurid in the least. The females are sturdy and solid, the males robust but tender. Male and female genitalia are in abundance. The figures are frequently clustered together in allegorical groups, showing adolescents playing leapfrog, or a mother and father with their child, or a mother with her son or a father with his daughter; or two bodies linked in a sort of yin-yang apposition, or two lovers in a state of bliss, foreheads touching tenderly, and another two lovers in a state of conflict.
Some of the figures are arrayed around a large, grand fountain portraying the cycles of our lives, others line up evenly on either side of a bridge. Still others are scaling a giant granite obelisk jutting into the sky, and they are writhing but not in despair, unlike those in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, instead there is a sense of togetherness, of carefully supporting one another, on their way toward some kind of resurrection or salvation at the summit, which is covered by sculptures of small children.
I walked among these nearly two hundred sculptures as if through a forest of human bodies, overwhelmed and awed. Vigeland’s artistic achievement is on the scale and magnitude of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, and Monet’s Water Lilies series. While his sculptures have not received the recognition of those famous works, they are nothing less than an artistic giant’s monument to humanity—to life, love, health, and human relations in all their multiple forms. The Vigeland sculptures are unmistakably ideological in that they represent a celebration of our bodies, female and male, and a celebration of the cult of life as opposed to the cult of death which ravages so much of our oversexed, overly violent media and world. Something about the Vigeland Sculpture Park struck me as distinctly Scandinavian, and European as well, in the sense that it was about health and vitality, a particular idiom of la dolce vita, infused with the mentality of slow food, organic agriculture, urban gardens, and bike paths, but in this case manifesting as these magnificent concrete expressions in granite and bronze. And it was about not only bodies but bodies that are au naturel, lacking embarrassment or modesty, yet not salacious, their nakedness just a normal part of life.
The Vigeland sculptures are a source of great pride for Norwegians. This was apparent when I mentioned the subject to one stoic taxi driver, a typical older Norwegian who had white-streaked hair and a chiseled chin, wore square aviator eyeglasses, and gave one-word or one-line responses and an occasional smile. But his face lit up when I praised the Vigeland sculptures. “Thank you,” he smiled more widely, bowing slightly but in a prideful way that meant he thanked me on behalf of his country.
These were just a few of the many manifestations of the attitudes and policies toward health that I found in Europe. Sometimes the Europeans remind me of hobbits, with a love of leisure, nature, relaxation, good food, a stimulating glass of wine or dark, earthy beer, and steeped in the values of health, family, and quality of life. It is these values and this outlook that they bring to their workfare system and their social capitalism, instilled into them in both intent and design. It’s also the values they inject into their formal health care system, which mostly is based on a principle of "people instead of profits," unlike the U.S. healthcare system which is run as a for-profit commercial enterprise and dominated by corporations and CEOs making hundreds of millions of dollars in annual salary and bonuses. The various European health care systems put people and their health before profits -- la sante d'abord, “health comes first,” as the French are fond of saying.
So if you ever are in Oslo, make sure to check out the Vigeland sculptures in Frogner Park, you will be in for an amazing experience.
—Steven Hill 3:13 AM
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