OSLO – VIGELAND SCULPTURE PARK

While I would never count the number of statues on display in any other museum I’ve visited, it’s hard not to count when describing the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s work on display in the 80-acre sculpture garden set in the lovely Frogner Park in Oslo. To sum up: the individual works total 220 bronze and granite human forms plus some strangely compelling wrought iron work. The entrance gates were the first to capture my eye.

Vigeland, was a well-known sculptor in Norway by 1924 when he began his monumental effort to depict the naked human form from childhood to old age in all its beauty and ugliness. The first section of the gigantic installation opened to the public in 1940, the year the Germans occupied Norway during World War Two. He and his workshop continued to be financed by the government despite the privations others suffered. The continued support is no surprise since he welcomed prominent Nazis to his studio and said he was “happy” to have German soldiers walk around the park because of their good discipline.

Times change: we joined crowds of local families and international tourists to pass through the wrought iron gates to stroll over a 320-foot long bridge spanning a lovely lake. The bridge is lined with 58 bronzes, each one evoking admiration of Vigeland’s creative genius along with laughs, frowns and gasps at his audacity. The sculptures in this area are in physique reminiscent of the Greek or Renaissance ideal most of us would admire – trim, lithe, in motion – as they depict human life in all its aspects from love and tenderness to violence against both adults and children.

it seemed to me the works in bronze would have been pleasing to the visiting occupiers when they contemplated the sculptures reflecting aesthetics of fascist art work with glorification of strength and fitness.

The bridge leads to a magnificent fountain surrounded by 60 bronze reliefs and sculptures of youthful humans intertwined with trees, some disturbing as they looked trapped and in danger of being subsumed into the tree like Daphne fleeing Apollo so magnificently depicted by Bernini in Rome; others seemed like lovers sheltered under the branches.

Beyond the fountain are the steps leading to the climax of the sculpture installation: The Monolith Plateau.

To reach it we passed by wrought-iron gates with human-figures outlined against the thirty-six over-sized granite groups that represent the circle of life. The figures are heavy, inert and impassive with vacant eyes in contrast to the bronzes. It is as if they awaited their preordained fate without protest. They reminded me of some of the fascist-era statues in Rome, although the Roman examples are not as bulky. One example is the set of four marble Naked Horsemen marking the four corners of the so-called Square Colosseum in the EUR area in Rome erected during the Mussolini era.

At least the Roman one shows some action.

The Vigeland sculptures do not concern themselves with the centerpiece of the Plateau – a 46-foot high writhing mass of 121 intertwined figures – men, women and children all struggling violently to reach the summit of the phallic monument. What are they reaching for I wondered? Heaven, power, light, their potential, safety during the hardships of the war years? Whatever Norwegians thought during a cold and hungry Christmastime 1944 when it was unveiled, it still has immense power today.

Are you one of those who turn away and let life take its course, or part of the struggle? 

All photos except for the last are copyright Judith Works; the last photo is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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STAVANGER: Chocolate-dipped Goats and Sardines

One of the major reasons to visit Norway is to see the magnificent fjords, sea arms that stretch far into the landscape. One of the most spectacular is Lysefjorden, not far from Stravanger, a city between Bergen and Oslo, the capital. The 26-mile long fjord with waters 1600 feet deep is hemmed in by cliffs rising to 3000 feet. It’s no wonder that Victor Hugo used it as a setting in his 1886 novel, Toilers of the Sea, where he wrote that “Lyse-Fjord is the most terrible of all the gut rocks of the ocean.”  

Our visit was far more mundane—it’s not every day that one finds three domestic goats on a almost vertical rocky hillside with no visible farm buildings. How they got to this remote spot on the fjord and where they went during the fierce winter will always be a mystery to me. (Helicopter?) Nevertheless, they appeared to be having a great summer holiday. One was all milk chocolate colored, another milk white with a chocolate head, and the last one looked as though the front half had been dipped in chocolate.
The captain slowed the engine and a crew member lowered a ramp. She then picked up a bag of bread and walked to the goats who pushed and shoved to get the snack as we, the passengers clustered to take photos. Payment to their participation in the photo-op finished, the goats returned to their rocky perch and we continued up the narrow sea-arm to view waterfalls, villages, pirates’ hideouts, and the famous Pulpit Rock rising straight up 1982 feet from the saltwater. Along with serving as a spectacular viewpoint for hikers, the rock is used for BASE jumping—a terrifying thought.
The city of Stavanger makes its living from provisioning the North Sea’s oil drilling industry, and like everywhere scenic, tourists. We skipped the architecturally-innovative oil museum in favor of a museum honoring another ocean resource: sardines. The canning industry, with 70  processing plants in use from about 1880 to the mid-1950s, has long passed its heyday but the museum was one of the cleverest we’ve visited: installed in the old and nicely-named Venus Cannery, it takes a visitor through the process complete with movies from around World War One.
The machinery to make and seal cans still functions and the tin samples of fish sizes are laid out to show how the workers learned to sort. The office with its old typewriter stands ready to send out another invoice to somewhere in the world as demonstrated by the display of sardine can labels.
We arrived on a day when the smoking ovens with low-burning fires were lit over rows of sardines. The man tending the fire handed me one of the fish. Delicious!
Of course, there’s a gift shop. We filled a shopping bag with a couple of cans of King Oscar sardines, and an apron now in use by my chef —aka husband. It’s not everywhere that one’s chef wears an apron with a sardine can emblazoned on the front.
It was pleasant to stroll the old town where flowers flourish in the long summer days, before a visit to the cathedral, a Romanesque structure dating from 1125 later remodeled with Gothic touches. 
The cathedral is the largest cathedral in Norway. The stained-glass windows had been removed for restoration but we were fascinated by the unusual plaques apparently commissioned to honor the stiffly-starched pious and wealthy 17thcentury families associated with the church. The ruff on one woman looked like a crumb-catcher although I couldn’t see how she would actually have been able to eat.
The severity of the sober families was a complete contrast to the wildly-colored pulpit with primary-colored Biblical scenes in folk-art styles.
After, we browsed a small open market, considered whether we should buy a reindeer pelt, an inevitable troll, or sample unusual food choices before settling for a local Norwegian beer, comparing the feet on the glass to our own tired toes.

All photos copyright Judith Works

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BERGEN the Beautiful

Bergen, Norway, has a reputation for rain. Lots of rain: 83 inches over 230 days each year. But the weather gods smiled when were there. Located on the southerly portion of Norway’s fiord-fringed coast, the city originally gained prominence as part of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns from the late 1100s until the mid-1600s. Now it’s a busy and beautiful university city.

The old traders’ warehouses divided by narrow alleys line the waterfront. Instead of dried cod, they are now designated UNESCO heritage sites and are a magnet for tourists looking for trinkets like trolls, silver jewelry, weirdly-named snacks,

and high-end clothing like the divinely-inspired but devilishly-expensive Oleana sweaters. (There was no doubt I’d succumb to their allure. My indulgent husband sighed but gamely produced his credit card.)

These cute children’s styles from another company caught my eye: Three little Norwegians ready for school in winter.

But Bergen is also home to two outstanding cultural treasures, the real object of our visit: The composer Edvard Greig’s lovely summer home, and an ancient stave church.

The composer is one of my favorites for his Peer Gynt Suite and the lovely Wedding Day at Troldhaugen expressing Norwegian nationalism among many other pieces. His home at Troldhaugen was built in 1885 near the shore of Nordås Lake, a suburb of Bergen. He and his wife lived in this idyllic location for 22 summers until he died in 1907, some say of overwork. Troldhaugen became a museum in 1928 and the complex set in lovely gardens now includes Grieg’s villa, the composer’s hut by the lake shore, the couple’s grave site as well as a café, modern museum building and Troldsalen, a chamber music hall seating 200 people.

The house, called The Villa, is surprisingly modest for an owner of such international fame. The exterior has the typical Victorian gingerbread elements, and like so many pictures I’ve seen of Scandinavian homes, this one had the typical geranium blooming in a window.

Like all tourist areas now, it was crowded and we had to wait our turn to enter the home.

One whole room is now devoted to a display of Greig’s manuscripts and collection of awards.

It was easy to imagine musical afternoons in the living room with the kettle steaming and friends like the famous virtuoso violinist Ole Bull gathered to hear his latest composition.

After the tour, we wandered down the steep hill to peer in the windows of the tiny cabin where Grieg worked accompanied only by birdsong and lapping lake waters. The building contains a piano, stove, desk, and couchall he needed. I pictured him taking a break on the sofa awaiting inspiration for the next movement of his latest composition.

On the way out of the complex, we joined others to dispose of the ubiquitous stickers stuck to their clothes to remind them what group they had been in (and probably annoying the maintenance workers).

Our heads and hearts filled with music as we moved backward in time to visit the reconstructed Fantoft Stave Church originally built when Norway was discarding the Norse gods in favor of Christianity. A stave church is a medievalwooden structure, once common in north-western Europe. The name derives from the building’s structure of post and lintel construction, a type of timber framing where the load-bearing pine posts are called stav in modern Norwegian. There were once around two thousand such churches, but now only a few remain, some much larger than the one we visited which must have served a small congregation.The church was originally built around the year 1150 in a village near the end of a fjord north of Bergan. When a new church was built in 1879, the wooden building was moved to its current location.

The church is set in a wooded area that lends a mystical air with mossy ground snaked with tree roots.

The ancient rough-hewn stone cross stands on a hillock nearby looking like it was out of Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality tale, Seventh Seal.

 Adding to the surreal atmosphere, the church’s roofline was topped by stylized Norse dragons spouting fire to protect the building. However, the dragons were ineffective when, after standing for over 800 years, ironically the building was destroyed by arson. Reconstruction, completed in 1997, took six years.

The interior is a complete contrast to the ornamented exterior: plain pine wood, simple altar and a  carving of a dragon that seemed to me to be of Celtic design near the entrance.

The small church and the surrounding woods are a place of contemplation in this troubled world and a reminder the past cannot and should not be erased.

All photos copyright Judith Works

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