Friday, July 25, 2014

Oslo: Thoughts on Norwegian Art, Architecture, and Design

From the minute we arrived at the Oslo train station and stepped outside, beautiful examples of modern Norwegian architecture loomed up on every side. We were southeast of the city center, and here there was space for building and expansion by this wealthy Scandanavian city.

Unconventional building shapes, window tints, and quirky yet elegant lighting fixtures within (such as cloud-shaped ones: sorry, no picture!) belied Norwegian style: artful and elegant, and sleek, yet not without humor.

The bike stands outside of an apartment building, for example, were of shaped cement in the form of bicycles, and sidewalk lighting was achieved by having built into each bike sculpture a front light and a rear light, with front lights shining white, and rear lights shining red, of course!  The lighting would turn on automatically as soon as it got dark, which in summer in Oslo is past 11 o'clock at night.

I found more lighthearted art in these oversized flowerpots outside of a hotel on the other side of the train depot. To me, they are unabashedly shouting, "Look at us!" in Elsa Schiaparelli pink. The pots encapsulated the Norwegians' message to me: we may take on a traditional design, but we will change it, make it bigger than life, and we are not afraid of standing out.

And then this message in the installation I found at the Museum of Contemporary Art just made me laugh out loud. I can't explain why it was in the art museum, but it was important enough to someone to take up an entire wall in their new "Take Liberty!" exhibit.

As we strolled around the city from the newer parts more inward to the older more historic city center, I was struck by how seamlessly the city was able to blend old and new. The transition was not jarring, and everywhere one looked was a feast for the eyes. Below, for example, is a view down Karl Johans Gate, the main street in town that leads directly to the royal palace, and following that is a photo of the fountain outside the Museum of Contemporary Art. The building behind the fountain is not the museum, but rather a beautiful example of the kind of architecture you see all over that part of the city. Both areas are within walking distance of the ultramodern buildings shown above.

As we ventured on to the Vikingskiphuset, I realized I should have known that the Norwegians have a grand tradition in design, and so their contemporary art skills have been rooted in long historical tradition. I had previously seen examples of the Vikings' workmanship on their horned cups and on the ornamentation of their long ships. 

What I was truly unprepared for, however, was what met our eyes at the Vikingskiphuset, where three funerary longships were displayed in grand style along with the treasures and remains of noblewomen and men discovered on board. The sheer size of each of these ships was impressive; the workmanship that went into each beautifully carpentered join to make the vessel seaworthy, not to mention last over a thousand years, was breathtaking.  

It's truly hard to portray, with my limited photography skills, how massive and impressive these ships are. Suffice it to say I had to take both of these shots using the iPhone's "pano" mode, and that in order to look down upon them from this angle, one has to climb a complete flight of stairs.  The stories these ships tell about the people who made them, as well as the people for whom they were built, are still being revealed by careful research, but one thing is for certain: these ships stand as a testament to the fact that the Vikings certainly paid extreme attention to detail, and were masters at combining engineering and art.

Further afield, we experienced more Norwegian art and design in the form of the Vigeland Sculpture park. This park is dedicated to the work of Gustav Vigeland, who celebrated the beauty of the human form in bronze, granite and forged iron and who also apparently designed the organization of the park itself.  What most struck me about his work was his ability to breathe life into each statue and pull forth emotion from rock and metal.  And further, while many artists (Rodin, for example) focus on the tortured soul of humankind, Vigeland's work is distinctly upbeat, even joyful and humorous at times.

He seemed very interested in the cycles of life, portraying infants, toddlers, children, young adults, middle aged parents, and elderly people and their relationships. I loved his portrayals of parenthood:

... and I liked this one of a father with quadruplets the best.  Got a little more than you bargained for going on there, Dad?

Norwegian humor in art surprised me, I suppose, because I've been clinging to Garrison Keillor's 'Norwegian bachelor farmer' characterization as representative of all Norwegians for evidently far too long.  I pictured the country full of the taciturn and morose. And perhaps, as my thoughts were doubtless also influenced by Edvard Munch's "Scream," I thought Norwegians were likely a bit stressed. It turned out to be one of those situations in which I was delighted to find I couldn't have been more wrong: Norwegian art and architecture reveals the nation's creative, elegant and lively spirit. Just a look around Oslo for a few days taught me that.

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