Visiting Oslo, Norway, a few weeks ago, I went to see one of the most popular attractions.
In Frogner Park, is the famous Vigeland installation, a permanent sculpture installation of 212 bronze and granite pieces created by Gustav Vigeland between the 1920s and 1943. I was enthralled by the granite sculptures of humanity in all of its phases. There are sculptures from babies to old women, lovers and haters, athletes and the infirm, the dying and the dead. The sheer number, the largest installation of a single artist’s work in the world, has considerable power.
The humans represented are naked. I can’t imagine that sculptures of naked men holding naked children would be acceptable in today’s prurient America. It would be as if a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs were turned to stone and populated Central Park.
As magnificent as the collection of work is, I felt an underlying discomfort. I couldn’t identify it until I returned home, although, at the time, I asked the guide at the museum whether Vigeland was a Nazi sympathizer. She said, “No”. Why did I ask this? I felt something.
Pola Gauguin, son of Paul Gauguin, and a prominent art critic of the time, wrote that the installation “reeks of Nazi mentality.” Ah, that’s it. Beyond the technical wonder, the fascination of inspiration, the slight eroticism, lies the fascism.
The sculptures are heroic and romantic, themes that were dear to the Third Reich. What is interesting about Vigeland’s work is that it also includes the aged. One of the most powerful pieces is of two old woman with creased faces, flat breasts and sagging bellies. Does this not contradict the message of muscular humanity, “uncontaminated by Jewish influence” as the Nazis described their work?
Gustav Vigeland was a Nazi sympathizer and supported Quisling’s collaborationist government. I don’t know what was in his mind when he imagined the sculptures. I just don’t know enough.