At first glance, it looks like a garden of eroticism: Lifesize statues of nude men and women in exotic embraces. On closer inspection, the sculpture is not erotic but powerful evocations of mankind rising to life, arresting portrayals of the evolutionary struggle from the first faint stirrings of life to old age and death.
This is Vigeland Sculpture Park, an 80-acre cultural oasis in the middle of Oslo -- a public collection of statuary unsurpassed anywhere in Europe. But even for Scandinavia, Vigeland Park has been the center of controversy. bEver since it was established in the 1940s and '50s, the sculptures have shocked some people, delighted others, and left few indifferent.
The lake-studded park is the creation of Gustav Vigeland, considered Norway's greatest sculptor, and resulted from a unique agreement between the artist and his government. In 1921, the city of Oslo agreed to give Vigeland a studio and land to display his works in return for all of Vigeland's artistic production -- sculptures, drawings, woodcuts, even the original models of all his future works.
Along with the land, the city also gave Vigeland full discretion in designing the public gardens and stocking them with his artistry. Today, 192 remarkable pieces of sculpture present the artist's conception of the development of mankind.
The park has three primary sections: The Bridge, The Fountain, The Monolith Plateau.
The approach to Vigeland Park is over a long, wide bridge lined with 58 life-size bronze figures of nude humans, many in what at the very least must be viewed as "provocative" poses.
Their titles are deceptively simple: "Man standing behind woman" is a man holding a woman's breasts in his hands. "Woman jumping up on a man" depicts a nude woman with her legs wrapped around a man, her outstretched arms boldly displaying her body for the man to inspect.
Videland wanted his figures to show the relationships between the man and woman, parents and children. Among the 58 statues, there is erotic play and combat, as well as quiet love. The realism of many of the figures startles many and you may be a double take at some of the more graphic statues.
The four corners of the bridge are anchored by a tall granite column with figures on top: Three depict a man struggling with a giant lizard, while the fourth shows a woman in a lizard's embrace. The lizards are symbols of evil, locked in combat with Man, a motif Vineland developed in response to the gargoyles of the Middle Ages.
In the middle of the park is a huge fountain, a massive urn supported by six stooped human figures representing Man bearing the heavy burden of life.
The fountain cascades in two levels into a deep reflecting pool around which are clustered separate "tree groups" -- bronze tableaus of the branches and crown of trees with human figures intertwined amidst the branches. The representation is considered a romantic expression of the relationship of Man to nature and shows humans at all different ages, from infant through old age.
In one cluster, a woman sits on a tree resembling an animal, while another has a man and woman in a head-down position held tightly together by the branches. In another, old people are grouped together with children, the new generation which will continue the stream of life. And finally, death in the shape of a skeleton takes its place in the branches.
At first glance, the clusters seem grotesque, but closer inspection shows the artist's attempt to illustrate how one generation succeeds another: Every individual is an integral part of a greater whole.
Around the base of the parapet that encloses the pool are 60 bronze reliefs repeating the eternal cycle of life. Here, Vigeland introduces the relationship of man to animals, as children happily play with them, women show them deep affection, while the men fight with them.
Vigeland symbolically shows the transition from death to new life in the form of skeletons sinking down and disintegrating. Embryonic shapes then collect the remains and fly away with them, completing the cycle: Out of death arises new life. There is no isolated existence; everything forms part of a greater entity.
Crowning the park's highest point is the Monolith Plateau, a rising series of 36 circular stairs ascending to the Monolith, a towering, grotesque 54-foot column of 121 twisting, intertwining naked human figures carved from a single block of stone.
The stairs are filled with 36 massive granite groupings of nude humans encompassing every facet of life: A mother on all fours gives her children a piggy-back ride; an old man embraces four boys, then cradles on an old woman. Vigeland attempted to represent a wide gamut of life forces -- love, compassion, playfulness, discovery, age, youth, anger, and the final decline.
The centerpiece is the Monolith column, a horrifying, textured sculpture from a distance, but a moving, awesome work of art when seen up close. At the bottom are seemingly inert adult figures, over which other figures -- children, men and women of all ages, single and in groups -- rise in a quickening spiral. Some cling to each other, others try to help and lift.
Some figures seem only half-conscious, others are alert and active. Some viewers look upon these upward-striving figures as evoking a struggle for existence; others think of Nietzsche's words, "Generation shall tread upon generation." Still others consider the column a vision of Man's resurrection after death.
Vigeland, himself, would never explain what he meant by the Monolith. The closest he ever came was this: "The granite groups depict life, the column the world of the imagination. So everyone can understand the groups, and everyone can interpret the column in his own way."
The final piece of Vigeland Park is the Wheel of Life, a colossal bronze wheel-shaped group of four adult figures and three children, all holding on to each other for dear life. Through the wheel and circle -- symbols of eternity -- Vigeland attempted to show the unity of existence.
For the weary tourist, Vigeland Park offers a quiet place for resting, a lovely park area with a rose garden, lake, children's park and labyrinth of inlaid black and white granite. It's easy to reach by public transportation and admission is free. Besides, Vigeland really is provocative.