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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DRAGON SKIN – The Faroe Islands

DRAGON SKIN
The wrinkled sea shining in the damp silvery dawn made me think of dragons’ skin and old Norse gods as the ship glided slowly into the harbor at Torshavn. The sun pierced dark clouds to illuminate buildings and harbor.

I imagined the characters from Norse myths: Grendel, Beowulf, Thor, Odin, and all the rest were hiding somewhere in the hills overlooking the harbor.
Torshavn is the capital of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark (which also includes Greenland). A collection of eighteen islands rising abruptly out of the North Sea in the middle of a stormy triangle made up of Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, it’s low in population but high on atmosphere with mists, waterfalls spilling down the cliffs, sheep in green pastures, and sod-roofed homes. Although Celtic monks arrived in the 600s, it was the Norsemen in their dragon-prowed long ships who settled the country around AD 825. The inhabitants have made their living mostly from fishing ever since. And everywhere there are monuments to the enormous death toll arising from venturing into the treacherous waters.
I’d enjoyed a previous visit to the Faroes and was delighted to take another look at Torshavn (Thor’s Harbor) and to explore a different area of the countrythis time concentrating on the largest island, Streymoy, where Torshavn is located.
The capital is a combination of modern glass-sided buildings, and sturdy old sod-roofed houses jumbled together, some dating from the 1500s.

It was obvious that beyond fishing, the tourism industry is growing rapidly, with birdwatchers, hikers, and other adventure tourists. Several four- and five-star hotels are under construction in Torshavn, and for those who want the very best and can afford to pay, there is a Michelin two-starred restaurant, KOKS, on the nearby island of Vagar serving such traditional foods as fermented lamb, wind-dried and air-salted, along with high-concept presentations of bounty from the sea.
Tradition is much in evidence. I strolled through the oldest part of town, stopping to watch a man in old-style clothing re-sod his roof while his helper clad modern safety-orange helped lift the heavy squares of dirt and grass.

 
The Faroese language is a variant of Old Norse and, judging by the music stores and ads for performances, very much a living language. With the exception of Viking heavy metal, most of the music videos I’ve watched seem melancholy and feature the weather. Besides the music stores, the main shopping area has a shop with traditional clothing, a bookstore with books in Faroese, and sweater shops common to all Scandinavian countries for good reason. With a cool, wet, and windy climate combined with a long dark winter, knitting is a natural pastime although the islands’ sheep are grown only for meat, the wool unsuitable for craft work.
The landscape on our way north was mystical in keeping with the ancient myths. Clouds rose and fell, fields of grass bent in the breeze, showers fed the eternal waterfalls, sheep grazed, orange-billed Oystercatchers poked along the fjord shorelines.

Village churches and farmhouses with their wild-flower-covered roofs looked as if they had always been there.

But when I turned my attention to the present, it was easy to see what a wealthy country it is. The houses are perfectly kept, the cars are new, the roads are perfect and the closer islands are connected by bridges or underwater tunnels. The infrastructure is paid for with high income taxes like other Scandinavian countries. The people I talked to were happy with the arrangement. With good infrastructure, free schools, medical care and old-age support, they said they got their money’s worth.
The end of the journey was the settlement of Saksun, in an enchanted valley with a lacy waterfall spilling down a slope, an old barn built of stone, and a sod-roofed church facing the fjord.
 It was if we’d stepped into a magical scene from time immemorial.

In keeping with the atmosphere, I visited a nearby farmhouse, abandoned at the beginning of the 20thcentury and now a museum. The main building of stone and wood was constructed around 1820, although an older building once occupied the space. Within its thick walls was a smoke-room, cow-barn, henhouse, potato shed, as well as the living quarters where the occupants raised their family, sheltered the village priest when he passed by, ate their simple meals out of wooden bowls balanced on their laps, and no doubt, watched their children suffer with no medical care. How hard it must have been in the isolated spot when the long summer days turned to long dark winters.

As I enjoyed coffee and home-made waffles in the tiny kitchen flooded with summer sunlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if the family told stories of the old times when dragons appeared in swirling mist shrouding the farmstead. Then, after the cows in the stall were settled and evening prayers were done, the wick on the oil lantern was trimmed and the family slipped into beds built into niches to await another day of toil.

All photographs copyright Judith Works   

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IN THE KAROO

A silent young man picked us up in front of our hotel in Cape Town near a post carved with animal heads depicting four of South Africa’s big game.

We climbed into an SUV for a three-hour trip to a game preserve north of the city in an area called the Karoo. As we passed the sad townships, some with small houses and others with tin shacks, we were reminded of the deep poverty that envelopes so much of South Africa.

The contrast was emphasized when we came to the lush and manicured wine country with manor houses in Dutch Colonial style and acres of vines tended by black laborers. The landscape gave way to orchard and fields of grain. Small towns were anchored with sharp-steepled churches and small shops advertising braai (barbecued meat and sausage). We stopped in the delightfully-named town of Ceres (the Roman goddess of grain) for cold drinks before starting into the vast and empty Karoo. An enormous semi-desert, it is dotted with isolated farms and sparse vegetation that springs to life in the occasional rains.

Our destination was the Inverdoorn Game Reserve where we were to spend several days on safari to see the animals. The preserve encompasses 25,000 acres of fenced land and includes a cheetah breeding operation. But it is also home to many other of Africa’s animal wealth: Cape lion, zebra, Cape buffalo, rhino and hippo, giraffes and many species of antelope.

Not long after checking in we were greeted by two cheetah cubs (on leashes) coming to visit our bungalow. They were like large kittens rubbing against us, purring with a deep rumble. We petted the coarse fur and wondering what they were thinking, hoping that it wasn’t about dinner even though we’re pretty stringy. Their handler played with them but that ended when he put his fingers too close to one cub’s mouth and found his hand trapped. Another young man coaxed the animal to open up. No damage done but as my mother said, “Keep your hands to yourself.”

At dusk we drove deep into the preserve to watch the adults being trained to hunt. The conservationist told us that they will not breed unless they are in peak condition and must be thoroughly trained to hunt before they are released into the wild if they and their progeny are to survive. A pickup truck dragged a dead chicken on a long wire with the animals racing after it. The winner got the spoils and the others had to wait for the next run. They can run up to 70 miles an hour in short bursts – a spotted blur in the evening gloom.

The following day a group of day tourists arrived for lunch. Several rambunctious children were in the group and when the cubs were brought out they lunged at the children, more of a bite-size meal than us. Wild animals they were and I was content to admire them from a distance.

Although our room was luxurious and it was tempting to lounge around the pool, the attraction of the animals got me up before down, ready with camera and binoculars. The animals were so close that I didn’t even need a telephoto lens.

Rhinos and Cape buffalo, looking oblivious to our “ohs” and “aws” strolled to a waterhole, zebras cavorted, and giraffes trotted by with their rocking gaits. The low light cast a golden glow over the scene.

The homely gnus grazed but other large antelopes were stately as they looked at us curiously before moving slowly off into the brush in a dignified manner. The smaller antelope like springbok bounded around like hyperactive ten-year-olds. One apparently didn’t jump fast enough when on a morning game search we saw blood on the trail, the remains of a partially-eaten carcass and a leopard print. The leopard had leaped over the fence for a meal and was long gone but would return that night. 

The Cape lions, apparently extinct in the wild, were in a separate enclosure, the only zoo-like aspect of the game preserve. The guide opened both gates and we drove in. She closed the gates and turned the key in the ignition. It wouldn’t start. There we were like a pair of Daniels in the lions’ den. A tense few minutes followed while she radioed for backup. Fortunately they weren’t hungry. While we waited for help, we watched as the black-maned male mated with one female while the others in the pride napped in the shade of a few trees in the hot afternoon, uninterested in the coupling next to them.

It was hard not to think of all the wildlife being slaughtered without care throughout the continent. A tragedy for them and for us. We felt fortunate to have a small chance to see what is left outside the national parks, too far away for us on this journey.

We were reluctant to leave. The same driver came to pick us up for the journey back to Cape Town. This time he was conversational, telling us about his life. He was a migrant from the Congo. Economic migrants are bitterly, sometimes violently, resented by South Africans who are desperate for jobs. He was trying to support a family in his home country but said the pay was so low it was nearly impossible to sustain himself and them, and that he suffered constant discrimination. It seemed to us that not only were the animals under siege, but also the people of every country in the region, all seeking work no matter where the quest led them.

We took a different route than the outgoing trip, this time over craggy and mostly barren steep hills. Proteus, the national flower of South Africa, bloomed in crevices. At the summit we came upon a troop of baboons, dangerous to people and destructive to crops, preventing us from getting out of the SUV to enjoy the view. We descended and reached Ceres again where a long line of angry-looking agricultural workers marched along the roadway holding signs, some in Afrikaans and others in English. Low wages and not enough work – the universal problem.

We stopped at a coffee shop before we reached the city’s outskirts and convinced the driver to join us for a snack. He reluctantly did so, silently drinking a Coke and eating a sandwich. The other patrons stared at him. It was clear that he was accepted by neither whites nor blacks, caught in a harsh world of great beauty that offered him little.

How sheltered we were from reality again when we said good-bye and entered the enclosed world of a fancy hotel on the Cape Town waterfront, far removed from others’ problems, both animal and human.

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