Vigeland Park, Oslo, Norway
by Erik Jones, Associate ASLA

There are many fascinating places to visit throughout Scandinavia. The Scandinavians are known for their innovative design and support of public works of art. One such place is Vigeland Park, situated near the center of the city of Oslo, Norway. It is a spectacular public park conceived and designed by a Norwegian sculptor by the name of Gustav Vigeland. This park is a “must see” not only because it is a prime example of landscape architecture but also for the great pieces of sculpture and symbolism used throughout it.

Gustav Vigeland was born in 1869 in the small coastal town of Mandal in southern Norway. He was sent to Oslo where he learned to read and studied wood carving. He returned to his family after the death of his father to help support the family farm. In 1888, he returned to Oslo determined to become a professional sculptor. There he studied under an apprenticeship for several years. He then spent several more years traveling Europe, including Denmark, France, and Italy. In Paris, he spent some time at Rodin’s studio, which greatly influenced his work through the rest of his career. In 1902, he returned to Oslo and set up his own studio in a dilapidated building. When it became necessary to demolish the studio to make room for the new Deichman Library, Vigeland entered into an agreement with the Oslo City Council in 1921. He granted the city all of his sculptures, drawings, and woodcuts as well as the original models of all planned works. In return, the Council agreed to build him a studio that could be converted into a museum after his death. In 1924, Vigeland moved into his new studio, which included living quarters above. This was his home until his death in 1943. According to his own wish, his ashes are kept in the tower of the building.

Vigeland Park is the greatest exhibition of Vigeland’s work. It is an extension of Frogner Park, which is now integrated into the east side of Vigeland Park. Vigeland drew up the plans for the park’s layout, including both axes that intersect on a central fountain. Construction began in 1924 and installation of the final design of the park was not completed until around 1950, the year that the final sculptures were installed. Vigeland himself did not live to see completion of the park.

The park covers an area of about 80 acres. 212 sculptures adorn the park and are all modeled in full size. The main central axis through the park is divided into five sections which include The Main Entrance, The Bridge with The Children’s Playground, The Fountain, the Monolith Plateau, the Monolith, and The Wheel of Life. The sculptures are either cast in bronze or carved from granite. Each one contributes to the theme of the park, “Human Condition,” and no two are alike. They depict various poses of the human body fully naked and at different stages of life from very young to very old. Vigeland conceived each one and modeled them without use of pupils or other artists. He was not able to complete them all, and a large number were left for talented craftsmen to complete out of bronze and granite.

The Main Entrance to the park is a set of massive gates erected of wrought iron and granite.

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The Main Entrance to the park.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

They were constructed in 1926 and certainly make an impressive statement. The entrance begins an 850 meter long axis through the park and includes the beginning of Frogner Park. Either side includes public activities like tennis, swimming, and even an athletic track. This is the most popular area of the park. The center of the park contains the Monolith Plateau.

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View from the Monolith Plateau.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

Further down the axis is The Bridge. Here begins Vigeland Park and the impressive display of the Vigeland sculptures. The Bridge is lined with various posed sculptures and dissects a central pond to form two smaller ponds. The sculptures show people displaying various emotions such as happiness, anger, sorrow, and joy. On the southern side of the bridge a waterfall empties the upper portion of the pond into the lower pond.

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The waterfall under The Bridge.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

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Man in a circle on The Bridge.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved. 

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Woman on The Bridge.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008.

Located near the falls is an area called the Children’s Playground. A ring of eight sculpted children encircle a central sculpture of a fetus. An interpretation of this circle of eight figures, including the ninth central one, could be symbolizing the nine months of human pregnancy and very early stages of life.

Continuing down along The Bridge you will come to The Fountain.

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The Fountain.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

Originally, it was meant to be installed in the square in front of the Parliament Building, Eidsvolls Plass, but this plan was later scrapped. It was finally installed in 1947 after the longest design process of any element for the park. Bronze reliefs adorn The Fountain with various images depicting children and skeletons interacting with each other. One such relief is of two children hugging a skeleton, which could be interpreted as the embracement of death. Also ringing the fountain are tree sculptures that incorporate children in them. It is thought that these symbolize the cycle of life in that through death arises new life. The paved surface around the fountain is made up of a black and white granite mosaic that forms a geometric 3000 meter long labyrinth.

At the apex of the park, the Monolith Plateau rises on circular stairs towards the Monolith, which overlooks the rest of the park. The granite column has 121 figures carved from a single granite block and is 17.3 meters high including the plinth. Whereas the theme in the fountain is the eternal life cycle, the column gives light to a totally different interpretation: man’s longing and yearning for the spiritual and divine. Gustav Vigeland was greatly influence by the Christian Church in his early years and could have been portraying that influence in his masterpiece of the park. The column could be understood as man’s resurrection. The figures are drawn towards heaven in what may look like a struggle between one another, or maybe they being tugged upward by heaven itself. The first sketches of the giant column date from 1919. Vigeland modeled it full size in clay at his new studio near Frogner in 1924 and 1925. It only took him ten months, after which it was cast in plaster. In 1929, the transferring of the figures began because a granite block had finally been installed in the Monolith’s final location. It took three stone carvers 14 years to complete the work. Accompanying the Monolith are 36 granite figure groups that depict a variety of human situations and relationships. Also around the plateau are eight wrought iron gates with figures of Man at various stages of life.

Finally at the end of the axis is a sundial with images of the signs of the zodiac and the Wheel of Life.

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The Wheel of Life with the Monolith Plateau in the background.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

The wheel is a symbol of eternity and is executed as a garland of women, children, and men holding on to each other. In a sense, this sculpture sums up the dramatic theme of the entire park: man’s journey from cradle to grave, through happiness and grief, through fantasy, hope, and wishes of eternity.

Vigeland Park is a great asset to the city of Oslo and is very much enjoyed by its people.  However, it has also been subjected to criticism. One obvious issue is Vigeland’s use of public nudity. In March of 2007, some say an act of vandalism occurred when an unknown group covered all the genitals and breasts of the sculptures with piece of black paper. Others feel it may have been a harmless prank. There is uniqueness in the park that one cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, and for that the priceless pieces of art should be protected and proudly displayed for all to see.

Concluding Remarks

Many meanings have been attached to Vigeland Park—either from Vigeland himself or from others who have visited the park. As a landscape architecture student, visiting this park was an inspiring experience. I walked through the main gates and instantly appreciated the design expertise that went into creating this space. I have gained a great appreciation for the implementation of the design not only through its strong concept but also through the meanings and symbolism represented by the design and the sculptures. If the opportunity ever arises to visit Vigeland Park, do not pass it up, but instead be prepared for an amazing journey through the cycle of life.

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The Monolith.
Image courtesy Erik Jones, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

Erik Jones, Associate ASLA, is a 2009 graduate of Landscape Architecture at Michigan State University.


Vigeland - museet og parken.” City of Oslo. 19 Oct. 2008
Further Reading

Wikborg, Tone: Gustav Vigeland. Woodcuts. Oslo 1996. 96 p. 150 Ill.

Wikborg, Bringager, Kokkin, Haugsgjerd; Eros i Gustav Vigelands kunst / Eros in the Art of Gustav Vigeland. Oslo 1996. 191 p. 200 Ill.

Messel, Nils (ed.) Lys og refleksjoner/Light and reflection Tekst av Gustav Vigeland, fotografi er av Knut Bry. Norwegian and English text. Oslo 1998. 147 s. 92 Ill.

Vigeland Picture Book (park and museum). Oslo 1995. 31 p. 65 Ill. Text in Norwegian and English.

Wikborg, Tone: Gustav Vigeland. Sculpture park and museumi Oslo. Guide to the Vigeland Park. 44 s. 75 Ill. Same booklet in Norwegian, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian and Japanese.

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