Oslo is not a city high on most people’s lists of places to visit. But anyone interested in twentieth-century art, and particularly in sculpture, should make it a priority destination.  The Frogner Park there is not only one of the earliest large-scale contemporary sculpture parks in the world; it is also the creation of a single artist, Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), who proves himself on that site to rank among the greatest modern sculptors.  Nearby is a museum in which plaster casts of the works in the park, together with bronzes and maquettes from all periods of his life can be studied. Some of his work is to be found in other Norwegian towns, and the Nobel Peace Prize medal is cast to his design; but elsewhere in the world he is absent, and as a result unknown. This is a loss for all of us.

You enter Vigeland’s park through the grand gates that he designed for it, and pass his self-portrait – a rather dour standing figure – as you begin a walk of nearly 1,000 yards that takes you through the whole of life in an astonishing kaleidoscope of vivid experience.  It begins with towering, minatory columns topped by men and women struggling with strange insect-like reptiles. There’s plenty of surreal fantasy in the park, but the overall impression one gains is that Vigeland was impelled by a consuming love of humanity and all aspects of our life and experience. His primary idiom is a naturalism that oscillates between the expressionist and the realist. Flanked by the tall columns, a bridge carries us over the Frogner Lake, its parapets lined with naked figures of men, women and children in a multitude of relationships, with themselves and each other.  They are in bronze, a little larger than life.

Ignaz Wiradi/Wikimedia Commons

A mother clasps her infant, parents embrace their children, or punish them; a girl runs joyously, her hair flying; a man dances as he improbably juggles several babies in the air.  Two boys look up, as if to spot planes in the sky; a young man carries a woman bodily on his chest.  Great bronze rings encircle men and women struggling to fit themselves into the geometric shape – or to escape from it.  Below, on a platform close to a roaring cascade, an Infants’ Circle contains a series of crawling and experimenting babies, with at their centre a foetus, upside down, ready to be born.

Palickap / CC BY-SA

Vigeland’s intention was to present life from cradle to grave, though the subjects follow one another in such fertile variety that no strict narrative is insisted upon.  The centre-piece of the avenue is a huge bronze fountain, an overflowing bowl lifted high on the shoulders of six titans, in the middle of a square pool surrounded by groups of figures entangled in trees.

Paasikivi / CC BY-SA

The figure-and-tree groups are among the first designed for the park, dating from the very early 1900s. They are reminiscent of Art Nouveau table centres and épergnes, sinuously intertwined stems topped with flattened masses of foliage, and with figures sitting, standing or darting among them. A young child sits pensive on a low branch; a girl dives open–eyed through the stems as though under the sea; girls and boys climb and play in the branches; old men and women sit and ponder in the shade. A skeleton sits in one of the trees.

Palickap / CC BY-SA

There are skeletons too in the square panels that form a frieze round the square basin: skeletons drifting slowly down through deep water, or lying disintegrated on the sea-bed. A skeleton inserts itself between two closely embracing lovers and forces them apart; in the curled horns of a prehistoric monster’s skull a child sits comfortably ensconced. Animals and people have curious encounters – a woman and a unicorn; a baby and a bear. Lovers meet, adults console one another or quarrel; a “hermit” crawls along, surely a memory of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar: Vigeland knew British art and had studied the English cathedrals as a young man, before he executed sculpture for the great gothic cathedral at Trondheim.

Separated from the basin and frieze by an outer “moat” the visitor walks round this grand composition on a pavement designed by Vigeland as a labyrinth that symbolises the maze of life, and reaches wrought-iron gates depicting upright nude men, women and children, all engaged in conversation or play.

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France / CC BY

Through their lattice-work we see a low hill surmounted by a tall granite column, the Monolith, on which are carved writhing figures that ascend from prostrate elderly bodies at the base to a flourish of small children at the tip – a veritable rocket of life. It is both a totem and the spire of an Indian temple, teeming with humanity.

Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

The Monolith is surrounded by flights of steps lined with thirty-six great granite figure-groups, once again presenting humanity in all its variety: children, the elderly, lovers embracing or quarrelling, the old caressing or admonishing the young, figures in repose, in pleasant social contact, in torment, in resignation, enduring the last moments of existence.  The style is simplified, as the hard granite dictates, but the essential details – expressions of compassion or anger, the tension of muscles and veins – are crisply delineated. Cascading in tiers down the hill, these groups seem to spill out from the formal design and blend with the crowds of people who are usually to be found enjoying themselves in this ever-open, free public space.

Palickap / CC BY-SA

The long sequence culminates in a great bronze ring of flying figures, once again symbolic of the cycle of life, full of energy yet conveying a sort of ecstasy, an ecstasy that radiates out from this astonishing work – the whole ensemble demands to be seen as a single statement – to become absorbed into the real life going on round it. This is one of the most truly humane aesthetic statements of any age, exhilarating, exalting, disturbing and consoling in equal measure.

The City of Oslo granted Vigeland his park in 1924, and he worked on it for the remaining thirty years of his life. He had begun designing the tree-groups in the first decade of the century, and the plan underwent many vicissitudes before the final form was settled on.  Vigeland’s style changed in the course of the project; the Art Nouveau figures in trees round the great fountain mark his earliest phase; the bronze panels are from the time of the first World War; the bronze figures on the Bridge are mostly from the ‘20s and early thirties, while the granite groups round the Monolith were begun in a prescient Neo-classical idiom in 1915.  The Monolith was conceived in the ‘20s and executed by a picked team of assistants throughout the following decades; the Wheel of Life at the top of the avenue dates from the mid-1930s, as does a large group of figures, The Clan, erected some way off across the greensward of the park as late as 1938.

Next to the park is the Vigeland Museum, a handsome building that contains most of his work, either in the bronze or marble original or in the form of casts. The components of the park layout can be studied in tranquillity here, as can maquettes for the fine, characterful portrayals of Ibsen, Grieg and other great Norwegians that were erected in Olso, Bergen and elsewhere in the country. In particular, the Museum offers a chance to examine Vigeland’s remarkable early work. He was much under the sway of Rodin in the 1890s, and his panels of Hell and The Last Judgement show the debt, yet are themselves highly original conceptions. His groups of lovers in every stage of bliss and misery are a poignant refection of his own early emotional troubles, and perhaps of the bizarre family life he led.  His father, Eliseus Thorsen (Vigeland very soon changed his name) was a master-carpenter, a devout and gloomy pietist who imposed an intolerably strict regime on his family and later, traumatically, renounced religion altogether. There is, then, a good deal of the familiar Scandinavian despair about the early work, and it is a miraculous shift of tone that we witness in the much broader, more all-encompassing, we might say Shakespearean, acceptance and celebration of human existence that greets us in the Frogner Park.