Geilo to Oslo: Return to the Quiet City
30 July 2012
In an earlier post from 2009 I called Oslo The Quiet City. Since that time, I had to retract that in the wake of the Breivik massacre and acknowledge that Oslo was no longer the quiet city. Just last week was the one year anniversary of the massacre, and there were of course many news stories and memorials. There are buildings in downtown Oslo surrounded by scaffolding, presumably to repair damage from the massive bomb blast that accompanied the massacre.
I returned to one of my favorite places in Oslo, Frogner Park, with its sculptural program of all the diversity of the human condition executed by Guxtav Vigeland. Vigeland could have said, as Walt Whitman said, I am large, I contain multitudes. And multitudes had turned out on this sunny day. While the pleasant weather brought out significant numbers to Frogner Park, it remained a relatively quiet place, and the crowds rarely compromised the peace and tranquility of the park. Here I could once again think of Oslo as the quiet city.
Seen from close up, Vigeland’s central monument at Frogner Park reveals the human struggle in all its petty intimacy, with one person climbing over another in striving to reach the top. Because of our inalienable position within the human condition, this is what it always looks like to us — very personal and visceral. We do not have the luxury of standing back and viewing it all from a distance because we are part of it. The companion monument, located nearby but less visited, called The Circle of Life, has a rather different character. Here the figures are intertwined as in the central monolith, but gracefully, and there is no striving for the top, only the equilibrium state of a closed and finite but unbounded loop.
The local guide at the Urnes stave church, in discussing the wooden carvings on the exterior of the church, took pains to point out that the largest figures in that delicate interweaving of figures are mammals — not reptiles or dragons, as one might assume from the Viking fondness for representing ferocity through dragon’s heads. He also pointed out that the figures in the carving, while all struggling with each other, are all alive. None has yet triumphed, and none has yet died. The same could be said of Vigeland’s monolith, and the softened representation of the struggle of life as it appears in The Circle of Life. The carvings at Urnes lie somewhere in between the naked struggle of Vigeland’s monolith and the graceful torus of The Circle of Life — a medieval evocation of the struggle and interdependence of life.
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