It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere that has had such a lasting effect, where the memory of what I’ve seen replays itself time and time again in my mind. I’m interested in museums, if they deal with the resistance or the holocaust. I like photography exhibitions, if they deal with people rather than places. And I have a minor obsession with statues. I’ve been led to believe that while all statues are sculptures, not all sculptures are statues. Statues are, apparently, sculptures in the round. Whatever.
Frognerparken in Oslo is home to the Vigelandsanlegget – an arrangement of 212 bronze and granite sculptures (statues?) by Gustav Vigeland. [Note of caution: Do not refer to it as Vigeland Park or Sculpture Park – the exhibition is an entity within Frogner Park.] This amazing man worked from 1906 to 1947, sculpting these life-sized figures without the aid of models or students. It literally is a lifetime of work and apparently the largest exhibition in the world by one sculptor. If anywhere ever gave me food for thought … and then some … this place did. It must have been fascinating to see it back then, to see it evolve, as statue after statue was completed.
I’m not quite sure what it all represents. I’m light years away from being an expert in anything art related, but I know what I like. As I shuffled between despair and hope, between the inevitability of old age and the selfishness of youth, I felt at once both happy and sad. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. And while this description has been known to fit me on occasion, it has been an age since any work (or works) of art have made me feel so much, and so deeply. Not since I visited Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama have I been so moved.
It was as if, deep inside every block of granite, was a soul. A soul with a message for all who stopped to stare, if only we took the time to listen, to hear whatever it had to say. The crowds milled around (it’s a popular spot). Kids climbed the towering structures, watched over by shutter-clicking adults who should have known better. Where’s the respect, I asked myself more than once.
The detail, the facial expressions, the forlorn smiles of acceptance, all added to that sense of mystery and I wondered how I’d never heard of this man – he who wielded the chisel and imbued the stone with life.
Everywhere I turned I was reminded of our inability to communicate. That wanting to say something but not knowing how. That fear of feeling lest it upset the clinical balance of our lives. And I recalled, not for the first time lately, the line from Rod McKuen: However wretchedly I feel, I feel.
There’s a 100 metre bridge, lined on either side with statues, 58 in all – a little reminiscent of the Charles Bridge in Prague, without the religion. Here, too, you can spot the ones that are supposed to be lucky to touch, where the patina has been rubbed away and that particular piece of the statue gleams, as if it were a badge of popularity. Like the Angry Boy (Sinnataggen). Then far in the distance is the monolith. Way back in 1929, three stone carvers started to carve Vigeland’s design in a block of granite. It took them 14 years to finish. At Christmas 1944, this 14.12 metre high sculpture composed of 121 human figures was unveiled. Reaching up into the sky it is said to represent man’s desire to become closer with the spiritual and divine. It portrays a feeling of togetherness as the human figures embrace one another as they are carried toward salvation.
That’s not quite what it said to me but my interpretation could be more to do with my current state of mind and a tincture of resistance to prescribed artistic interpretation. As I looked at it, I didn’t see people striving upwards towards the great spirit. It seemed instead that they were holding each other back or hanging on for dear life.
I took my time wandering around, trying to decide what it was I felt, trying to focus in on what was bothering me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on it. For days afterwards, and even still, I see those faces, those figures, those statues, and wonder what was going on in Vigeland’s mind as he chipped away. Do they reflect his state of mind then? Did the forms just take shape of their own volition? Was I confusing hope with despair? Was I seeing the glass half-empty? Was I simply not getting it?