GUSTAV VIGELAND. THE MAN BEHIND THE VIGELAND PARK
Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) is perhaps the best known Norwegian sculptor, a fame confirmed by the Vigeland Park in Oslo. This area, measuring about 340 acres and mainly designed and shaped by Vigeland, has more than 200 of his sculptures, and since its completion in the 1950s been very popular, both with locals and with tourists. Despite this, Vigeland has never made a particular impact on Norwegian sculpture - he is not like one of his famous contemporaries, the painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Vigeland had a modest upbringing, went through a struggling period as a student and in his early career, but ended up as an acclaimed sculptor.
His father, the carpenter Eliseus Thorsen, had his own business in Mandal, and the family lived in a three-storey house near the centre of the town. His father was very religious, but, alas, no teetotaller. At one stage he invested almost all the family fortune in shipping - and when the ship sank, the family lost it all. Thorsen later opened a pub in the house, situated on the ground floor. Over the years the alchohol got the better of him, ending with his wife leaving him, taking their three children with her. They moved to her father, who lived on a small farm west of Mandal, in a place called Vigeland, apparently derived from the Norse word for "viking land".
When Gustav Vigeland arrived in Oslo in the mid-1880s wanting to become an artist, he was dependent on being taught by established sculptors: the Academy of Fine Arts was not established until 1909. Among the few sculptors in Oslo, Vigeland was lucky enough to receive instruction from two of them, Brynjulf Bergslien and Mathias Skeibrok. Bergslien's most prominent work is the equestrian monument of the late king Karl Johan in front of the Royal Palace in Oslo.
It took some time before Vigeland paid Bergslien a visit, but when he did so in early 1889 Bergslien looked closely at Vigeland's drawings and sketches, and is supposed to have uttered that they were by far the most impressive he had ever seen. He wanted to keep them for some days, to show them to his friend, Lorentz Dietrichson, professor in Art History at the University of Oslo. Dietrichson too, was much impressed by what he saw, and the two of them contacted friends and acquaintances in order to provide Vigeland with financial support. It gave him financial relief for a while, but it make Vigeland feel like a beggar when he made his monthly visits to his benefactors.
Vigeland was allowed to work in Bergslien's studio, both assisting and learning from the master. It was a fruitful relationship, and after only nine months in his master's studio, Vigeland made his debut in autumn 1889 with the sculpture group "Hagar and Ishmael" at the annual Salon d'automne (Statens kunstutstilling) in Oslo.
That same autumn Vigeland was also attending at art school, the only sculptor in his class. One of his tutors was the sculptor Mathias Skeibrok (1851-1896), who had studied in both Copenhagen and Paris, and is said to have introduced naturalism in Norwegian sculpture. This made, of course, a certain impact on the students, but Vigeland later became much opposed to this. The young sculptor was more oriented towards the symbolism and neo-romanticism of the time. Despite the fact that Vigeland was not to follow stylistically in his tutor's footsteps, the environment was supportive towards him and his talent acknowledged. Skeibrok played a significant part in this, as he held positions in commitees providing emerging artists with funds. In May 1890 Vigeland was granted 2,000 Norwegian crowns from his hometown Mandal, and in 1891 he received a state grant.
In 1891 Vigeland travelled to Copenhagen for further study, and was given tutorials by the sculptor and teacher Vilhelm Bissen (1836-1913). It was here Vigenland first saw the museum dedicated to Bertel Thorvaldsen and his art and life. It was to become an inspiration for Vigeland, although not necessarily for Thorvaldsen's art. Many people supported Vigeland during his life and career, but Vigeland had a temper, and there were falling-outs. Jens Thiis was in the 1890s director of the Museum of Applied Art in Trondheim, and connected to the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral - skilled sculptors were needed, and Vigeland was invited.
TRAVELS IN EUROPE
Thanks to public and private funding Vigeland was able to travel around Europe during the 1890s and early 1900s. He particularly enjoyed Paris, Reims, Florence, Rome and London. In 1895 he stayed in Berlin, which at that time was very popular and important for Norwegian artists. During his stay, Vigeland had a close professional relationship with Edvard Munch, and they shared a room and studio, but had a falling-out; rumour has it that during one argument, Vigeland threw a clay bust of Munch at the artist. It was destroyed, and Vigeland never made a new one.
One of the more prominent persons in Berlin at that time was the Polish intellectual Stanislaw Przybiszewski. He had some knowledge of the Norwegian art scene through his wife, the Norwegian author, Dagny Juel. Przsybizewski was the first to publish an article on Vigeland's work in a European magazine, which made something of an impact, particularly on young Polish sculptors around the turn of the century.
Vigeland was a complex person, in many ways withdrawn and shy, but also very strategic. This is particularly evident from the number of busts he executed around the turn of the century. Vigeland approached prominent people in order to portray them, and in doing so he took the liberty to present them with different topics and tasks asking for both advice and assistance.
One such example was the composer Edvard Grieg who for a long time had been on Vigeland's "wish-list". He accepted the invitation from Vigeland in 1902, flattered to be portrayed by such a talented sculptor. Due to Grieg's concert programme, he was unable to pose until winter 1903. Vigeland took the opportunity to speak about the difficulties connected to the Abel monument and Grieg suggested a concert to the benefit of the project. However, this plan never saw the light of day. The author Knut Hamsun stayed a friend with Vigeland throughout his life, and in their younger days the two would often spend time together. It is said that Hamsun was the most outgoing of the two, and on several occasions he did not turn up in Vigeland's studio as agreed. Vigeland had long been trying to approach the writer Henrik Ibsen, but it was not until towards the end of the writer's life that he was allowed to sculpt him. Ibsen, having suffered two strokes, did not speak, and allowed Vigeland to work for only ten minutes at a time, over six visits. Nevertheless, Vigeland was very satisfied with the finished work.
THE STUDIO AT FROGNER
In February 1921, an agreement between Vigeland and the City of Oslo was signed by which he was given a vast studio at Frogner in the outskirts of Oslo. In exchange, he would give the city all of the work he had already made, as well as eveything he would produce until his death. The studio had an apartment for him and his family, consisting of library, dining-room, living-room, sitting-room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom with bathtub and lavatory (not every household had such indoor facilities in the early 1920s).
There are a number of interesting features about the agreement about the studio. Vigeland was determined to make it a museum of his works after his death, and decided at an early stage that his body was to be cremated and his urn to be placed in a dedicated room in the tower.
Signing the contract, Vigeland was able to concentrate on his work, although the agreement did not, however, give him any fee or salary. He was allowed to participate in competitions or take on private comissions. Interestingly, Vigeland held only two solo exhibitions in his career, the first in 1894, and the last in 1899.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
In his apartment, there are excellent examples of his interest in design, and arts and crafts, evident in particular in candelabras and lamps, designed by Vigeland and executed in wrought iron by his own blacksmiths. In addition he drew patterns for tablecloths, pillows and carpets. The apartment consists of many objects and details from Vigeland's life, and it is tempting to describe it as a kind of "Gesamtkunstwerke".
The park was not intended to be developed as we know it today, nor was it part of Vigeland's initial plans. Interestingly, he stuck to several of his ideas for many years, and we see them in the park today. When the agreement for the studio was signed in 1921, Vigeland first planned to establish a park-like area in front of the building. As we can see from a model in the museum this would consist of the fountain and the monolith. However, people close to Vigeland suggested that a better place would be the land near Frogner manor, an area acquired by the city of Oslo in 1899 in order to create a park for inhabitants. For different reasons these plans never turned out, and the area had been like a waste land since the Great Exhibition in 1914.
By the end of 1924 a final decision was taken, and Vigeland was allowed to erect the monolith and the fountain on the fields. At first, the opinion was in general positive towards Vigeland's sculptures in the area, an attitude that could be the result of Vigeland no longer opting for an area close to the royal palace. The fountain had been part of Vigeland's ideas ever since a competition in 1907, and finally he had a specific site and a grander context to place it in. The monolith was something he had been working on for years, considering several projects, including one for Oslo's central railway station in 1919. It took him almost a year to make the plaster model in actual scale, which was indeed a tour de force: three stone masons would work on the monolith from summer 1929 to summer 1942. When working on the park, Vigeland also found space for a modest-sized bronze sculpture, "The Angry Boy", the first sketch for which is dated 24 (29?) July in London. Vigeland later made a first small version in 1913, but the one on the bridge is from 1938.
THE MEANING OF IT ALL - IN BRIEF
We know that Vigeland was stylistically oriented towards symbolism and neo-romanticism. Some of his early sculptures also have a stark realism to them, like "Expelled" (1892) and "Beggars" (1894). It is no secret that Vigeland was inspired by Auguste Rodin during this early phase: Vigeland visited Rodin's studio when in Paris, but they never actually met. What characterises the sculptures from the early period is their expressionism, and depiction of the individual's inner strengths and struggles.
Stylistically, there is a shift around the time of World War I. Vigeland is still leaning towards the French, but his sculptures are more simplified, less expressionistic, closer to the works of Aristide Maillol and his syn-thetism. This style is very much apparent in the works on the bridge and those encircling the monolith. However, it was not a stylistic break as such, as we also can see from the sculptures surrounding the fountain. They have the emphasis on individual expressions and inner feelings, and point back stylistically to Rodin. In the park we find a theme which is both visualised in the whole, but also in the details. Interpreting Vigeland is not the easiest of tasks: the artist never, or only very rarely, gave titles to his sculptures. Rather, there are descriptions of what we see. He did this on purpose, in order not to steer viewers' expectations in any specific direction. When looking at the park from a bird's eye view, one can easily see that the outline resembles a latin cross , with the main axis from the main gate, across the bridge, towards the monolith, and ending with "The Wheel of Life" as the apsis. The fountain marks the cross. The sculptures can be divided into groups - the bridge, the fountain, the monolith, and the two smaller groups such as "The Wheel of Life" and "The Clan". Looking at the number of sculptures in the park, we may say that relationship is a common denominator. We see the visualisation of life, from conception, birth, growing up, living together, and finally, death. However, death is not the end: the subject matter is cyclical, and that is most obvious in the sculptures surrounding the fountain, but also in the single "Wheel of Life".
One example of the enigmatic Vigeland is to be found in his monolith. A total of 121 persons, children and adults alike, are striving upwards. When asked what this monolith meant, he answered, "This is my religion". It does not seem an elucidating answer, but personally, I have no problem living with that. There are other examples among the sculptures that have a fine subtlety to them. One is connected to the fountain - "Young Girl Levitating in a Tree" shows a young girl afloat in the air, between the branches of a tree. Her arms are covering her breasts, as if she wants to protect herself from something, as if illustrating the young girl's transition from childhood to adolesence.
Vigeland's life and works are interesting and complex. He was shy, reclusive, stubborn, strategic, but also affectionate and generous - this would depend, of course, on whom you asked. His shrewdness, however, is undisputable and thanks to that, we have today a fine museum consisting both of his sculptures themselves, and the impressive park that bears his name.