Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943), considered to be the most prolific sculptor of all time, was also a controversial artist. With dual focuses on innovative realism and on the human body, Vigeland's work continues to spark debate today. He is now best–known for his sculpture garden Vigeland Park, a part of Frogner Park, and for the Vigeland Museum, both in Oslo, Norway.
Early Life and Education
The son of a master carpenter, Gustav Vigeland was born on April 11, 1869, in Mandal, a town on the southern coast of Norway. From an early age he displayed ability as a woodcarver; his family, although very strict, supported his artistic interests. At the age of 15, Vigeland was apprenticed to master woodcarver T. Christensen Fladmoe in Norway's capital, Oslo, then known as Kristiania. However, Vigeland's interests already primarily lay in sculpture, not carving; luckily, Vigeland's father had paid Fladmoe an additional fee, excusing young Vigeland from some of the monotonous tasks required of the apprentices and affording him more time to hone his skills. He returned uncomplainingly to Mandal the following year, 1886, when his father died.
Vigeland spent two years working on his family's farm in Mandal, in his free time making sketches of things he wished to sculpt. When Vigeland was free to return to the capital in 1888, he brought these sketches with him and spent an interval unsuccessfully attempting to earn a living as a wood carver. One night, cold, hungry, and with no place to stay, Vigeland decided to show his sketches to renowned sculptor Brynjulf Bergslien. Bergslien was impressed and took Vigeland into his studio. Having received technical training from Bergslien, Vigeland exhibited his first piece at the Autumn Exhibition of Art in 1889. Bergslien recommended another sculptor, Skeibrok, to continue Vigeland's training in 1890; under Skeibrok's tutelage, Vigeland entered a piece entitled "Hagar and Ishmael" into the state art competition. The work won a prize, allowing Vigeland to go to Copenhagen, Denmark, to study under another prominent sculptor, C. Vilheim Bissen. Bissen was a more realistic sculptor than the rest of his Scandinavian colleagues, although still drawing on the neo–classical influences common in nineteenth century art.
Vigeland moved past these neo–classical influences to hone a style uniquely his own; as Nathan Cabot Hale commented in Embrace of Life: The Sculpture of Gustav Vigeland, "[It was] as though his teachers served as examples of what he should not do rather than serving as models to emulate." This rejection of the accepted style of modeling is apparent in Vigeland's first major work, "The Damned," a figure grouping which portrays the Biblical flight of Cain. This sculpture draws on some neo–classical and some realist influences, but is noticeably not of either school; two of the figures fit into the contemporary, half–naturalist style, while the primary, male figure is more realistic and expressive.
Travel Abroad Led to Development of Style
Having completed his technical training under some of the great sculptors of Scandinavia, Vigeland took advantage of government funding to go to Paris to continue his studies. There, he often visited the studio of Auguste Rodin, the French master of realistic sculpture, and was influenced by Rodin's methods and motifs; however, Vigeland never met the master sculptor, believing the influence of his work was enough. The following year, Vigeland returned to Oslo and prepared for his first independent exhibition in October and November of 1894. The exhibition received some mixed reviews, but was generally considered a success; Tone Wikborg commented in A Guide to Vigeland Park that "much was expected of the young sculptor" following his first show.
Vigeland again left Norway to continue his explorations in other countries. He went first to Berlin in 1895, where he associated with leading members of the artistic community, including his countryman, painter Edvard Munch. In the spring, he continued to the cultural capitals of Italy: Florence, Naples, and Rome. In Italy, the monumental Classical and Renaissance pieces that filled the cathedrals and town squares inspired Vigeland. By 1897, Vigeland was out of money and had returned to Norway, where he found a job with the crew restoring the grand Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. While doing sculptural work on the cathedral, Vigeland became intrigued by the motifs of mystical evil monsters such as dragons engaged in battle against men. This concept of struggle informed much of Vigeland's later art. After the completion of his work at Trondheim, Vigeland held his second—and final—solo exhibition in 1899, this time finding his work unequivocally well–received by Norwegian critics.
The turn of the century marked a change in Vigeland's personal life: he married Laura Mathilde Andersen in 1900, a union that would produce two children but would ultimately end in divorce. (Vigeland would be remarried in 1922, to Ingerid Vilberg, a woman over three decades his junior). Despite being a newlywed, Vigeland continued to travel around Europe—this time to England and France—to study various forms of sculpture. Vigeland spent about six months in Paris from late 1900 through early summer 1901, primarily making sketches for large, public monuments, a form that would become his specialty. From Paris, Vigeland went to London, where he saw the renowned sculptures of classical Greek artist Phidias for the first time. In late October, Vigeland returned to Norway to stay for some time.
In Oslo, Vigeland worked steadily. The first few years of the twentieth century saw Vigeland producing primarily portrait busts of notable Scandinavians—among them such figures as dramatist Henrik Ibsen and scientist Alfred Nobel—while continuing to develop sketches and ideas for monumental works. In 1903, he commenced modeling the monument to mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, a project that he completed in 1905. Also in 1905, Vigeland completed preliminary work for a grandiose piece which would consume decades of his life: a fountain then planned to be located in Eldsvoll Square, home of the Norwegian Parliament building. Vigeland produced a one–fifth–scale model of the fountain in 1906, laying the groundwork for the Committee for the Vigeland Fountain to begin gathering governmental approval and financial support for the piece in 1907.
Work on the fountain would continue off and on for several years; however, Vigeland continued to pursue other projects during this time. He completed a monumental statue of Camilla Collett, a Norwegian novelist and feminist, in 1909, as well as copies of some of his early works with stylistic variations. At about this period, Vigeland completely shed his naturalistic, neo–classical nineteenth century influences and began working in a simpler, broader style that would later define his sculptures. In 1910, Vigeland created two wrought–iron fences to surround existing monuments, marking his first foray into ironwork. In the mid–1910s, Vigeland commenced work with granite and other stone pieces. Initially, Vigeland produced small stone figure groups; however, it took less than two years for him to complete his first large–scale grouping. The speed of this process was partially attributable to the number of artisans Vigeland had assist him in the carving of the rock.
Returning to his woodworking roots, Vigeland found time to create a series of woodcuts in 1915. These woodcuts reflected a rough, Eastern European style; subjects ranged from humans to landscapes. However, major public works remained on Vigeland's mind. Vigeland modeled a statue of a Navy officer and the following year, he released plans to add granite groups to his fountain, still under construction. To gain public support for the fountain project, Vigeland made an unusual move: he opened his studio, something he did only a few times in his career. This studio exhibition led to a new committee forming to finance the fountain project; this committee would exist, promoting Vigeland's works, for the rest of the artist's life. Over the next few years, Vigeland continued sketching and producing sculpture and woodcuts; over 50 of his woodcarvings were exhibited at the Art Association in 1917.
Contract Tied Vigeland and Oslo
In 1921, Vigeland entered into an unprecedented contract with the city of Oslo. In exchange for a salary and adequate studio space for the remainder of his lifetime, Vigeland donated all of his extant works and models for all future works to the city with the understanding that his studio would be turned into a museum after his death. The area around Vigeland's studio, Frogner Park, became the home of his grand fountain complex, a change in locale that Vigeland had fought hard and long to obtain. The finalized project contained not only the large fountain originally planned, but also 36 granite groups and a carved column appropriately called Monolith. The Monolith was still conceptual at the time of the fountain's installation in 1924; in fact, this final piece of the complex was not completed until 1943. However, almost immediately, Vigeland began planning to expand Frogner Park to include sculptures for the bridge and a monumental main entrance. Vigeland released the plans for this entrance in 1927, as well as displaying finished portions of the wrought–iron gates; as a result of this exhibition, the Oslo Savings Bank funded the gates and the Oslo city council agreed to Vigeland's plans. Vigeland opened his studio again in 1930 to exhibit the model for the proposed bridge in Frogner Park as well as nearly 60 models for large sculptures and sculpture groups to decorate the park.
Vigeland's life in the early 1930s was primarily focused on the expansion of his sculpture garden, now called Vigeland Park, inside Frogner Park. The city council approved Vigeland's designs in 1931 and he began work on the multitude of pieces. Still, he found time to display well over 100 of his woodcarvings publicly in his studio in 1931. In the mid–1930s, Vigeland completed two major works for the park: the Wheel of Life, a large bronze sculpture depicting figures moving in a circle; and The Family, a monumental group piece, in 1935. For the rest of the decade, Vigeland continued to produce sculptures and models for pieces to reside in the park as well as a number of statues of notable Scandinavians. In a prescient move, Vigeland spent the autumn of 1942 creating wall reliefs for the part of his museum intended to house his funerary urn. Shortly after finishing this project, Vigeland contracted a heart infection in January 1943, dying from complications of that infection on March 12, 1943. The Vigeland Museum, delayed by Norway's involvement in World War II, was opened to the public in 1947.
Today, Gustav Vigeland is considered by many to be the finest sculptor ever to come from Norway. His work, typically featuring nude human figures in sometimes intimate but always emotionally charged poses, generated controversies as massive as the sculptures themselves in the artist's lifetime; even now, some controversy still swirls about his pieces. In the mid–twentieth century, Campbell Crockett noted that "Norwegians do not agree in their evaluations of Vigeland which is, perhaps, more of a commentary upon Norwegians than upon Vigeland." However, according to a recent Grove Art Online article, Vigeland "created [approximately] 1600 sculptures, thousands of drawings and 420 woodcuts, and designs for artefacts [sic]." Certainly this remarkable creative output, coupled with Vigeland's dramatic, colossal outdoor statuary, will assure Vigeland's place in the art world for years to come.
Hale, Nathan Cabot, Embrace of Life: the Sculpture of Gustav Vigeland, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1968.
Stang, Ragna, trans. Ardis Grosjean, Gustav Vigeland: The Sculptor and his Works, Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1965.
Wennerg, Bo and Tone Wikborg, trans. Leif Sommerseth and Ida Sherman, Gustav Vigeland: The Condition of Man, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, 1975.
Wikborg, Tone, Guide to the Vigeland Park, Oslo Municipal Art Collections, 1974.
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, September, 1955.
"Vigeland, Gustav," Encyclopedia Britannica Online,http://www.eb.com (January 14, 2005).
"Vigeland, Gustav," Grove Art Online,http://www.groveart.com (January 14, 2005).