After experiencing the wild exuberance of the Vigeland Sculpture complex, the Oslo City Hall is a model of sobriety with its red-brick exterior and rational layout, entrance courtyard with fountain and carvings from Norse myths, and long central hall flanked by two towers. Instead of naked writhing people, the artwork is reflective of the Norwegian character based on foundation myths and history.

While there are oil paintings and ceramic plaques, such as these honoring women,

much of the artwork in the interior of the grand building is in the form of fresco, a medium I particularly like.

The far end of the Great Hall, the site of the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, is a history of Oslo.

But by far the frescoes on one wall are the most moving. They are titled “The Occupation Frieze” done by Alf Rolfsen to remind and commemorate the Nazi Occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945. They comprise the history of this bleak period from fear, terror, resistance, and finally freedom. And I found them unforgettable and a warning to us all that freedom is not guaranteed.


Another monument to war and peace is the Akershus Fortress located on a hill abutting the Oslo waterfront not far from the city hall. The central part is a medieval castle founded in the late 1200s, modernized in the 1500s. Numerous other buildings make up the complex: dark passages, stables, fortified gates, guardhouses and a drawbridge. The Powder Magazine Tower erected in 1755, served as Death Row for Norwegian Resistance fighters and nearby is their execution ground.

A museum dedicated to the Resistance occupies a small building dating from 1691. The display is chronological, beginning with April 9, 1940, when Norway was unexpectedly attacked and a coup d’état resulted in a government run by the infamous Quisling and the Norwegian Nazi Party. The event is memorialized by a brutal sculpture of German Mauser Rifles in the shape of a swastika.

The exhibit continues with photographs of the war years marked by hardship and defiance with the final triumph of freedom regained.

The bookshop has narratives and memoirs in both Norwegian and English. I bought The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb, recounting the amazing story of the young men who sabotaged a power plant to foil Hitler’s aspiration to build an Atomic Bomb.

The fortress now hosts cultural events. I watched children enjoying a comedy and hoped they would all be able to live their lives without the specter of hunger and war hanging over them.

All photos copyright Judith Works

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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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