Poking out from the treetops in Oslo’s Frogner Park, is a single piece of carved Norwegian granite: a white monolith rising amidst the green. Upon closer inspection, sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s pièce de résistance reveals itself to be a 14-metre column, composed of 121 entangled bodies, piled atop each other.
Vigeland, who designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal, had a style that borders on the bizarre. This is particularly evident in this sculpture garden, an 80-acre stretch, strewn with 212 fantastical bronze and granite figures.
Informally known as the monolith, the tower of bodies is perhaps the most wondrous of these exhibits. Twisted bodies, young and old, male and female, embrace each other. The figures get progressively younger higher up. Some face upwards hopefully, others look dishevelled and beaten. A gamut of emotions, the essence of Vigeland’s work, comes to life on these stony faces.
It took three carvers 14 years, beginning in 1922, to create this pillar using Vigeland’s plaster model. On a raised platform of circular stairs, it is the highest point in Frogner Park. Surrounding it in three concentric rings are 36 sculptures on lower levels, each depicting human relationships. I move between these, running my hands over the smooth white granite. There are couples in varying stances: a man holds a woman by her head and balances her on his back. It could convey support and love; but it looks to me like he’s throwing her. In another sculpture, a group of young children huddle in a circle, as if they’re sharing secrets and won’t let outsiders in. A woman crouches on all fours, carrying on her back a baby and young child. This one needs no pondering.
I’m glad there are no plaques with lengthy explanations of the artist’s ideas. As with the rest of Vigeland’s works, the monolith remains unnamed and unexplained. To many Norwegians, the monolith—stretching towards the sky, with figures clamouring towards the top—signifies a human desire for the divine. Gro, a local who’s showing me around, sees something else altogether.
“I think it depicts new life,” she says. “You’ll see the top is all young children and babies. The future.” Vigeland died in 1943; his vivid artistic expression may be at rest, but his art is sure to fire the imagination of generations to come.
Appeared in the March 2015 issue as “Embracing The Future”.
Malavika Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, culture, and food. She travels for the outdoors: to dive deep in the Indian Ocean, crawl through caves in Meghalaya, and hike through the Norwegian fjords.