Vigeland’s “Monolith of Life”

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:  

In a park in Oslo — where children play, couples embrace, and old people reflect — you’ll find nearly 200 statues of people engaged in those same primal human activities. It’s a lifetime of work by Norway’s greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. 

In 1921, Gustav Vigeland struck a deal with the city. In return for a great studio and state support, he’d spend his creative life beautifying Oslo with this sculpture garden. From 1924 until his death in 1943 he worked on-site, designing 192 bronze and granite statue groupings — 600 figures in all, each unique. 

Vigeland’s sturdy humans capture universal themes of the cycle of life — birth, childhood, romance, struggle, childrearing, growing old, and death. His statues laugh, cry, jump for joy, and hug each other in sorrow. The bittersweet range of human experience was sculpted by a man who’d seen it all himself: love, failed marriages, children, broken homes, war, death — a man who did not age gracefully.  

For generations, the people of Oslo have made Vigeland’s timeless people a part of their own lives. The park is treated with respect: no police, no fences — and no graffiti. Vigeland created an in situ experience that is at once majestic, hands-on, entertaining, and deeply moving.  

Vigeland was inspired by Rodin’s naked, restless, intertwined statues. Like Rodin, Vigeland explored the yin-yang relationship of men and women. Also like Rodin, Vigeland did not personally carve most of his statues. Rather, he made models that were executed by a workshop of assistants.  

Strolling the park, you’ll cross a 300-foot-long bridge lined with statues, including the famous Angry Boy. He stomps his feet, clenches his fists, and screams — just like two-year-olds have since the beginning of time. (It’s said Vigeland gave a boy chocolate and then took it away to get this reaction.) Next comes a huge fountain, where water — the source of life — cascades around the statues. Vigeland consciously placed his figures amid the park’s landscaping to show how mankind is intimately bound up with nature.  

The most striking thing about these statues is they’re all so darn naked. This isn’t the soft-focus beauty of nubile nymphs, but the stark reality of penises, scrotums, vulvas, breasts, and butts. These people are naked Homo sapiens. 

In the center of the park, high on a hill, is the Monolith, a 46-foot granite pillar surrounded by 36 free-standing statues. Here, Vigeland explores a lifetime of human relationships. A mother bends over to care for her kids. Two lovers nestle nose to nose. A father counsels his son. An old man cradles his emaciated wife. 

Vigeland’s final great work was the Monolith itself. It was carved from a single 180-ton block of granite, and took three sculptors 14 years to carve. The pillar teems with life, a tangle of bodies. More than 120 figures — men, women, old, young — scramble over and around each other as they spiral up toward the top. What are they trying to reach? Success? Happiness? Mere survival? God? Vigeland never said. But whatever it is that drives the human race to aspire to better things, it’s clear that we’re all tied up in it together.