Before entering the Sikh compound in Amritsar, India, you must remove your shoes and then walk through a water trough. Only then can you enter the Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), visit the gigantic kitchens where the poor are fed daily, and walk around the man-made pool surrounding the Sri Harmandir Sahib, with stylishly-garbed sentries posted to protect the compound and its visitors.
Those who run Oslo's Vigeland Sculpture Park might take a page out of the Sikh's playbook. Just outside the park's entrance, there should be rows of lockers, where young and old alike store their clothes after disrobing, leaving nothing to the imagination.
For those who have not visited this park, that may sound odd, but makes perfect sense once you have spent a delightful two or three hours admiring the naked human forms cast in metal and stone. Completed between 1939 and 1949, the park showcases the lifework of Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), a prolific Norwegian sculptor. It holds more than 200 mostly life-size sculptures depicting the human form, at different stages in life's progression from birth to death. Sometimes the sculpture is of one person; other times it is of two or more people. All are gloriously unclothed, with exposed breasts, flaccid penises, testicles, and vaginas all unrestrained. In several cases, those depicted are in a romantic embrace. In others, old people are communicating with children, children are frolicking with each other, spouses are interacting, and the weary struggle with life's trials and tribulations, sometimes seeking comfort or support from each other.
In the center of the Versailles-like garden sits a gigantic fountain comprised of larger-than-life male figures holding a gigantic basin with water spilling from the sides. Around the pool beneath the fountain, bas-reliefs depict groups of people or solitary individuals engaged in a variety of activities or just posing.
Head up some stairs, and you come to the Monolith, which is best described (and I suspect is intended) as a gigantic phallus comprised of young, old, male, and female figures slithering over each other in an upward direction. It brought to mind Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle. If you are looking for unity, you might view the fountain as the female counterpart to the Monolith.
Clusters of stone statues surround the Monolith, and then there is the Wheel of Life, which functions as a sundial and represents the farthest point from the entrance gate. It serves as a summation--symbolizing man's journey from cradle to grave.
Hidden behind the bushes and shrubs in back of the Wheel are the many tour buses that deposit people in the park each day. More bushes and shrubs would improve the park's ambiance.
Most art museums don't like patrons touching the artworks. Vigeland rebelled against such a stayed approach to art. Many of his statues include more than one person, and often the figures are intertwined or even climbing over each other. So it only makes sense that those visiting the park are given an interactive analog experience. They can climb on the statues, which was Vigeland's intent. A number of school children took advantage of the opportunity. I can only wonder what sort of insurance coverage the park maintains, although that is an American lawyer's slanted viewpoint. The liability laws in Norway may not be as plaintiff friendly.
Vigeland was an interesting character. He kept outgrowing his studio space. The ultimate solution proved to be an elegant one. He cut a deal with the Oslo City Council in 1921 under which the city would provide Vigeland with studio space for the remainder of his life. He was also allowed to live in an apartment on the second floor of the building. Upon his death, the city would turn the studio and home into a museum. The city would also become the owner of all of Vigeland's artistic output, some of which would be displayed in the park that surrounded the studio.
The museum's collection holds somewhere around 1,600 sculptures, 420 woodcuts, and 12,000 drawings. I was lucky the day I visited. The hordes came for park, but apparently not for the museum. It was largely empty.
Vigeland's prolific output can be explained by his work ethic. He spent most of his time secluded in the studio, refraining from a lively social life. He preferred to continue his workday well into the evening.
Vigeland relied on assistants, which meant he could devote more time to developing his concepts. His process involved creating a clay model. The assistants then turned the model into a plaster cast. Stone masons then used a calipers, chisels and and other tools to carve the stone statues.
Overall, Vigeland Park is an enlightening experience, causing anyone who encounters it to reflect on life's progression. There also is the scent of sexuality in the air, but a very natural and uninhibited one. No lechers here.
[Click on on an image to enlarge it]
Versailles in Oslo: Vigeland Park
Yertle the Turtle's Monolith
Part of the Monolith
The Joy of Youth
"Klaatu Barada Nikto"
It's a Bird. No, It's a . . . ."
A Different Perspective
Resisting the Forces Bearing Down
Caught in the Act
The Oppression of Motherhood
The Heimlich Before the Heimlich
Playing With Dad
Flesh and Stone Communicating
"Hey, Get Off of Us. Can't You See We Already Are Burdened"
"I Feel So Strong Now Because You Pulled Me Up"
The Secret in Bas-Relief
The Ring of Life
The Maquette for The Fountain Layout
Determination in Plaster
Trying to Defeat an Old Adage
"Grab'em By . . ." You Know the Rest
The Original Plaster Caster
The Gathering Darkness Enveloping Europe
Each In His or Her Own World While in the Other's World
Waiting (Chair is part of a temporary exhibit by Åsil Bøthun)
He Can Even Do Clothes: Gustave Vigeland
Photographer's Notes: Vigeland Sculpture Park is a photographic feast. As a traveler, I found the park to be a somewhat frustrating experience given the unlimited possibilities it offers. I only had four hours to work. Although the light and weather did change over that span of time, the atmospheric conditions were relatively static when considered in the context of a year. Imagine photographing the statues during or after a snowfall, in the moonlight, after a heavy rainfall, or during the fall change of colors.
When traveling, the photographer takes what he is dealt. This is one of the reasons I advocate returning to the same city on a regular basis, or only traveling to one city during a vacation. As I reviewed my photographs today, the many missed opportunities became apparent. It would have been nice to go back one more time, but time did not permit a return visit while I was in Oslo. I am considering winter sojourn.
I suppose I shouldn't complain. I had a great time, enjoyed the sculptures, and managed to create a number of worthy images, at least I think so.
And in a historical note: The park's aesthetic strangely brings to mind Diane Arbus' photographs of nudists from the early Sixties. Arbus' body of work has always been characterized by its focus on society's oddballs, outcasts, and freaks. After visiting Vigeland, I now have trouble placing the nudists that so intrigued Arbus into any of those categories. There is one difference, however: Vigeland presented an idealized view of the human form. Arbus's subjects, on the other hand, were three or four standard deviations to the left of Vigeland's mean.