Oslo, The Quiet City
4 September 2009
Oslo has always impressed me as a quiet city. Even Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, which one might wrongly suppose to be similar in character, is busy and bustling in comparison. I can’t think of any other place in the world where I have encountered such urban serenity. It is almost as though “urban” and “frenetic” are synonyms, except that Oslo disproves this. Even Frogner Park, where tourists are in evidence and one can hear the babble of many languages being spoken, is overall a very quiet and peaceful place.
I went straightaway to Frogner Park. My room at the Saga Bed and Breakfast is about ten or fifteen minutes walk away, which is convenient. Tomorrow I will see how long a walk it is to get to the center of the city and the harbor front, but I don’t have the strength for that now. But I did, before crashing, find the strength to visit the Vigeland Museum and the Oslo City Museum, both of which are right in Frogner Park.
Frogner Park is a catalogue of the human condition, an encyclopedic account of human life, its stages, its moods, its hopes, and its fears. I am told that when my maternal grandmother (who was from Sweden, not Norway) first saw the central monolith here in the 1950s, she said that that it was an accurate portrayal of the way that life is, with people crawling over each other and struggling to rise in the world. This is as good an interpretation as any I have heard. It is, indeed, one of my reactions when I look at the monolith. But today I was more taken with the reliefs that surround the fountain below the monolith.
Looking at these Vigeland reliefs I was reminded of the great bronze doors at the Hildesheim, sometimes called the Hildesheim Doors (as in Gardner’s Art Through the Ages) and sometimes called the Bernward Doors (after St. Bernward, who commissioned them). The Hildesheim Doors are one of the great masterpieces of early medieval art, and indeed one of the great treasures of European art, though they are not well known. If one compares, for example, the legendary doors to the baptistery of Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti (being similar in layout though profoundly different in conception and execution; I’ve seen both in the flesh), there are few who have not heard of them. I will assume that this is a consequence of the prejudice in favor of the South that Jonathan Meades described in his Magnetic North television program.
We know that Vigeland was influenced by medieval art, as he was involved with restoration work at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which is the most impressive cathedral in Scandinavia. (Trondheim, I might mention, is a very quiet city.) From his work at Nidaros Vigeland took away an interest in the dragon or the serpent as a symbol of sin, that is to say, untrammeled nature as expressed in human action. It is fascinating to see in the Vigeland Museum Vigeland’s several early drafts of the central monolith for Frogner Park. There are many models of diverse character, some of which show a monolith entirely composed of intertwined serpents, giving a very different impression than the present monolith.
The theme of the serpent, of the human struggle with nature, including the struggle with human nature, is expressed in several other monumental sculptures in the Vigeland Museum. In the museum one also sees several supernatural figures, angels and devils, sometimes locked in a dialectical dance, and sometimes with a human figure between them. It is striking that in the finished version of the Vigeland sculpture garden at Frogner Park we have, as I said above, a catalogue of the human condition. Save for two exceptions that I noticed (and these were stone sculptures set high on pillars and thus suspended above the arena of human activity, as it were), all of the sculptures in Frogner Park were human, all-too-human, thus making Frogner Park an essay upon man and the human condition.
Why would Vigeland have set aside his fascination with the serpent to focus upon man? Obviously, man interests us. It is, of course, the human interest, and we all know that the human interest is what captures our interest. Fantastic stories may entertain us, but we always come back to our human identity, for better or worse. Thus Vigeland has populated Frogner Park with a human population that is very much like the population that comes to visit the park.
Indeed, the two populations — the transient population of visitors and the permanent population of archetypes — live separate yet parallel lives, intersecting in Frogner Park, crossing paths as one population walks among the other. And I would guess that just about any visitor to the park can find himself mirrored in the parallel population of permanent residents. Look among the many faces and the bodies writhing and pain and joy, and somewhere in the welter of experience your own life will be reflected to some reasonable degree of accuracy. Vigeland proved himself to be a great artist of Shakespearean scope in his ability to capture the diversity of the human condition.
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