A tale of two Vigelands

See both artist brothers’ work in Oslo

Emanuel Vigeland

Photo: Kjartan Hauglid / © BONO / Emanuel Vigeland Museum
Emanuel Vigeland’s vision for his museum, built on the property where he lived with his wife, was as a showcase for his paintings and sculptures.

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

You’ve heard of Gustav Vigeland. One of Norway’s most famous artists, he’s the one behind the intriguing, bizarre sculptures in Oslo’s Frogner Park. The sculpture park is an absolute must-see on any visit to Norway’s capital, no matter how brief or, in my opinion, how many times you’ve been there before.

But you may not be aware of the other artistic Vigeland: Emanuel, Gustav’s younger brother. His mausoleum, tucked away in a residential neighborhood in Oslo’s northwest suburbs, is one of the city’s best-kept secrets.

Visiting the mausoleum is no simple thing. It’s open to the public only a scant few hours each Sunday, with viewings outside that time by request only (and for an extra fee). I was lucky enough to see this work of art on my last visit to Oslo, despite not being in town during open hours on Sunday, thanks to Kirsti Svenning from Visit Oslo, who arranged for Yvonne Thomsen to meet me there.

To get there from Oslo, you take the T-bane toward Frognerseteren (the iconic ski jump Holmenkollen is farther along this line and also well worth a visit), disembarking into an unlikely neighborhood for a tourist attraction. On the afternoon of my visit, the chilly August day was flirting with a clear sky, and birds chirped when school buses weren’t passing me on the winding streets. It won’t seem right, but trust your map and keep walking.

From the outside, the building doesn’t look like much, an imposing, windowless red brick church amid the trees. You enter into a small whitewashed lobby with postcards and intricate wall scon­ces that cast eerie shadows. It was here that Thomsen met me, giving a little background on the lesser-known Vigeland.

He began working on the mausoleum, which at the time he intended to be a museum for his works, in 1926, at the age of 50. He was already a well-known painter and maker of stained-glass windows. Primarily, he worked in church art, designing interiors for churches all over Norway and Sweden (examples of his work can be seen in Bryn Church in Bærum, Gjerpen Church in Skien, Stavanger Cathedral, and Aarhus Cathedral, among others).

Vigeland’s vision for the building, built on the property where he lived with his wife, was as a showcase for his paintings and sculptures, and the building originally had windows, which were bricked up in the 1940s after he decided that the building should become his final resting place.

Emanuel Vigeland

Photo: Kjartan Hauglid / © BONO / Emanuel Vigeland Museum
Inside the Emanuel Vigeland museum, once your eyes adjust to the dim lighting, you’ll see endless bodies and skeletons telling an epic story of life and death.

And, yes, Vigeland is there, in an urn placed in a niche above the very low entry/exit door. The effect of this is that visitors are forced to bow to Vigeland when they leave, and it is said that this is Emanuel’s idea of morbid humor and revenge for always having been second Vigeland during his life, shadowed by Gustav.

By the time I left the mausoleum I felt like bowing to Emanuel Vigeland.

What’s so special about it? It’s hard to describe. Upon ducking through the little stone entryway, I can hardly see. The lights are kept low on Vigeland’s orders, so visitors must wait for their eyes to adjust to see the paintings at the top of the cavernous space.

I’m the only one visiting, so when I enter the space is quiet as… well, a tomb. But not for long. The famously “overwhelming” acoustics of the place make words like “echo” seem wholly inadequate. Every step on the stone floor sounds like an army, every whisper a chorus. Now I see why only 15 people at a time are allowed into the space.

And then, of course, coming slowly into focus as my eyes adapt, is the art. Seemingly every inch of the space is covered in a giant fresco, called Vita. According to the Emanuel Vigeland Museum’s website, the theme of Vita is “eroticism and man’s sexual instinct, conveyed through multitudes of naked bodies, women and men in impetuous intimacy. Lovemaking and procreation in the honor of God takes place in front of a dark and infinite universe, dimly lit by the life-giving, divine sun but also by the blazing fires of hell.”

It’s easy to see why Vigeland’s magnum opus took 21 years to complete; work ended in 1947. Fittingly, Vigeland died one year later.

It’s impossible to look at the work of Emanuel Vigeland without comparing to that of Gustav. Skeletons feature prominently in both. There’s a ghastliness to both, an otherworldly sense of unease, and yet a reverence. Both seem to have been obsessed with themes of life and death (though, to be fair, what artist isn’t?), and on a surface level, they both depict piles and piles of naked human bodies.

Unlike Emanuel, Gustav Vigeland did not live to see his opus realized; he died in 1943, one year before the central sculpture in Frogner park, the Monolith, was completed. Like his brother, Gustav’s ashes remain with his work, in the belfry of the building adjacent to Frogner Park that is now the Vigeland Museum. No obeisance to the ashes is required to visit this museum, which is also worth the stop, especially if it’s raining on the day you meant to spend in the park (and let’s face it, it probably will be raining).

(Isn’t it interesting that this work was ongoing and completed during Nazi occupation? The most recent statue, added to Frogner Park in 2002, is called “Surprised,” the plaster for which was completed in 1942, months before its model was sent to Auschwitz.)

Gustav Vigeland

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
You’ll find themes of life and death in Gustav Vigeland’s work too, especially in his use of babies juxtaposed with bones and skeletons.

Inside the Vigeland Museum you can see plaster casts and versions of what’s in the park, along with much more, including a who’s who of turn-of-the-century Norway in a hall of portrait busts, and molds and castings of the Nobel Peace Prize Medal, which Gustav Vigeland designed.

Having spent time with the works of both Vigelands, I am left with more questions than answers. I’ve been avoiding writing this article for over a year knowing that I know too little to do it justice, but I also cannot find the answers.

What was it about the Vigelands’ young lives that molded them into the artists they became? What was their relationship really like, and why did both of them adopt the surname of Vigeland (E. Vigeland was born August Emanuel Thorsen, while G. Vigeland was Adolf Gustav Thorsen) and use their middle names? What became of the other brothers?

I don’t know, but I’ll bet money that the tale of these two Vigelands would make an excellent Hollywood film. Or, barring that, a great topic for an art history dissertation. Until either of those come my way, I’ll have to settle for admiring the brothers’ art.

For more information about the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum, visit www.emanuelvigeland.museum.no. For more on the Gustav Vigeland Museum, visit www.vigeland.museum.no. Both are selectable in both Norwegian and English.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.