Gustav Vigeland

Words by Markus Støle
Photography by Andris Søndrol Visdal
Story originally published in Volume Eleven


A Titan, A God. These are the words the Norwegian sculptural artist Gustav Vigeland used in 1896 to describe Michelangelo, during one of Vigeland’s many journeys abroad seeking inspiration and knowledge. This specific visit, which was to Firenze and lastedsix months, marked a new chapter. Not of his career as an artist, but rather a crucial turning point, an inspiration, and perhaps the beginning of the journey towards the style and expression he is renowned for today—a style that ultimately is to be seen in his most famous work, The Vigeland Park in Oslo.

This monumental gesamntwerk of Nordic art history is the largest sculptural park in the world created by a single artist. With an impressive number of over two hundred 1:1 sized human sculptures, a gigantic fountain, the enormous sculpture The Wheel of Life, and the seventeen metres tall The Monolith, the park is one of Norway's best known and most visited tourist attractions. 

The sculptures, which express human relations, sexuality and the general human condition, are characterised by their sheer size, weight, their bulging shapes and the distinct, individual emotions captured beautifully and life like in each sculpture.

Vigeland’s journey towards his prominent status is a story driven by dedication and an incredible capacity for work. Given his obvious talents, Vigeland started his education as a wood carving apprentice at the early age of 10—a natural trait to pursue, given the fact that many in his family practiced wood carving and carpentry. In 1884, his father, a financially struggling cabinet maker and an alcoholic, brought him to the Norwegian capital Kristiania. Here he would undergo further education as a wood carver apprentice by day, and as a student at the Royal Drawing School by night. He knew already, then, that he wanted to be a sculptor.

In the fall of 1888, Vigeland set out to make a living as a wood carver in Kristiania, but failed miserably. Poor, and understandably desperate, Vigeland sought out sculptor Brynjulf Bergslien and showed him some of his sketches. Bergslien, who as a consequence of this meeting would later become his teacher, recognised his talent and made sure Vigeland got financial support from some of Kristiania’s most influential men, allowing the aspiring artist to pursue his talents. A year later, in 1889, one of Vigeland’s sculptures was shown for the first time at The State Art Exhibition. The sculpture, titled Hagar and Ismael, displays a mother and a group of children and is defined as a late-classicist piece.

From there on things became a little easier. Different scholarships came rolling in, and the years1893 to 1901proved to be vital in the shaping of the artist we know today. For stretches lastingweeks, months, and sometimes a whole year, Vigeland travelled to France, Italy, Germany and Great Britain. He visited museums, partying with the bohemians, and rented a number of ateliers; he worked constantly. In 1893, during one of his earliest visits to Paris, Vigeland became immensely inspired by sculptor Auguste Rodin’s erotic groups. This inspiration laid the foundation for the piece Helvede (Hell)—a pessimistic vision of human life, which was his centre piece at his very first solo exhibition in 1894. In contrast to Edvard Munch, Vigeland didn’t fall victim to harsh criticism, butrather was blessed with great expectation and support from the art community and the state alike. However, it wouldtake the artist another ten years before the Kristiania municipality granted him a permanent atelier.

In 1902, Vigeland started working from his new atelier at Hammersborg in Kristiania. Immersing himself in an intense and highly productive phase, Vigeland worked mostly on monuments and busts, portraying contemporary giants like Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch, Edvard Grieg, Knut Hamsun and Jonas Lie. At the same time, he entered a competition to sculpt a portrait-statue of the mathematician, Niels Henrik Abel. The statue—displaying a naked, heroic character floating through the sphere standing on two male figures—didn’t win, and became controversial due to its symbolic approach rather than the more traditional one. It created a heated public debate. Vigeland, however, responded by recreating the piece on a much larger scale; making it four metres tall. Curiously, the committee then bought the sculpture and it was unveiled at the Royal Park in 1908.

Years later, due to regulations in the Hammersborg area, Vigeland was forced to move. In 1919, Vigeland suggested to the municipality that in exchange for a new atelier and a permanent place where all of his work could be preserved for the future, he would donate all his sculptures as well as original models of sculptures to come. The municipality agreed, and Vigeland was granted a mansion called Gustav Vigeland Atelier and Museum. Here he would live and work, and after his death it would open as a museum.

In 1922, Vigeland presented his comprehensive plans of what was to become The Vigeland Park to the city council—a plan that would expand immensely over the years to come. After a long and bitter debate, the council finally approved his plans in 1924. Due to its comprehensiveness, and because of WW2, the park wasn’t finished until 40 years later. The Monolith alone took over 13 years to build, and due to shortage of supplies during the war, the fountain wasn’t done until 1947. Today the park is a national treasure, and represents the legacy of one of Norway’s most respected and productive artists.