A Hometown Tourist- and Ms Buan & Ms Fortun in Mr Vigeland’s House.
- About being reset in a blue room, and the story of the two female artists, Ann Iren Buan and Marthe Ramm Fortun who undressed Gustav Vigeland 75 years after his death, in his own museum.
Well, the idea was initially to describe the rooms of Vigelands museum. His apartment, the interiors, the bathroom where his robe still hangs on the wall. It was to be a short and sweet description with seductive images of modernist architecture, colours and Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures,- and, well, instead, it ended up in Hitler’s bathtub reminding me of my longstanding fascination with Lee Miller.
The fountain that became a park
-So, what do most people actually know about the man, the myth, his park and museum with his urn up top? That is, if you haven’t visited Vigelandsparken in a group, trailing behind some lady waving a red flag speaking to you through earplugs in your native tongue?
Vigelandsparken, or Frognerparken as many of us who use the park regularly call it, is where we bring our foreign friends and take our dogs for a walk. It is where we break up with a boyfriend, who in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have broken up with, fall asleep in the shade with someone we possibly shouldn’t be involved with, learn to skate, bring our first stolen bottle of wine to a pic-nic, watch the fireworks on new years eve, or take our kids to so they can rummage about that god-awful pirateship for a few hours…
Completed in 1949, when Vigeland had spent 40 years of his life on detailing the sculptures and fields stretching across 320 acres, the sculpture park is apparently the worlds largest created by a single artist.
Looking at it now, as it occupies a rather large part of Oslo’s peripheral city centre, one would think that this project was commissioned by the city of Oslo on the basis of careful planning. Well, that’s not quite the case. In fact, the whole park started with a fountain, the centrepiece really, of what is now the park itself, and was in fact intended for something altogether different…but, as an ambitious and stubborn young man, Mister Vigeland knew how to push his way through and get what he wanted.
Mr Vigeland had been to Paris in the latter half of the 19th century and seen Auguste Rodin. The impact this sculptor made on him was immense, and upon his return to Norway in the early part of his career, Vigeland envisioned himself a sculptor of monumental works. Incidentally, in the 1890’s, he got wind that the outlet for alcoholic beverages in Oslo, Brændevinssamlaget, had set aside funds for a fountain to be erected outside of Parliament in Oslo, and on his own initiative, Vigeland began sketching.
He managed to exhibit a model of his plans at The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design rather quickly, which meant he had a leg up on whatever competition might be out there. Despite criticism from a few prominent contemporaries like Christian Krohg with whom Vigeland had had a number of run-ins earlier, the response was overwhelmingly positive and in October of 1907, riding on a wave of nationalism following Norways independence from Sweden in 1905, the city council was asked to fund the project and set down a committee made up of the cultural, political and economic elite to oversee the commission. Later that year, in 1907, without a public contest and despite the fact that the price had been set at four times the funds 85.000, the fountain was commissioned and money was to be raised among private donors.
Suffice it to say – the fountain was never realised at the intended location in front of parliament, and for the next fifteen years Vigeland worked out of his studio at Hammersborg on other projects, mostly commemorative busts of various known cultural figures at the time, until this space became too small and was to be torn down to build the new Deichmann library. Vigeland, crafty as he was, made a rather sweet deal with the City of Oslo, who also committed itself to build a new studio and future museum to house his work, all of which was to be donated to the city itself as compensation, leaving his heirs with next to nothing. This new studio, the real subject of this piece, is today the Vigelands museum, but functioned for him as a studio where he and 12 workers at the most, tirelessly made the sculptures we see today carefully arranged around the park. The museum itself was drawn up by architect Lorentz Harboe Ree, with four wings enclosing a courtyard. Up in the tower, a small cylindrical room was created, now housing Vigeland’s urn, making the complex itself both museum and mausoleum.
The Museum and the Park
-For some reason, and I know I’m not the only one, I had not set foot in this museum since I was a small child, an experience of which I have no recollection. Coming back to it again, just a few years back, my feelings were exactly those of being a small child, touched by art for the very first time. I was reset. Something extraordinary, overwhelming, and unfamiliar hit me like a wall, and after the initial shock, it encapsulated me. I felt very small in the face of this apparent master’s power, more than 75 years after him dying there, in his own rooms, and wonder if this forceful presence, still felt so long after his death explains why he was able to lay 320 acres of Oslo under his spell?
The erection of this rather peculiar park, was not without its criticisms. It is to this day looked upon with both pride and prejudice and raises questions by some, about its overall sympathies. Is this the work and world-view of a megalomaniac in the throes of national-socialist sympathies, was he simply mirroring the tendencies of his time, or was he aspiring in his own way to reach a kind of universalism? Strangely enough, there are few discussions that really get into this, and those that do, critically, are generally quite hushed...
As mentioned above, the fountain he designed to be set in front of Parliament was never realised there, but became instead the centrepiece of the park itself, visible as it were from all sides of the park. Arranged around a square, are six men who carry a water-basin on their shoulders that thus functions as a fountain. Around the fountain are trees and reliefs detailing the four stages of life- childhood, youth, maturity and old age. According to the artist himself, these were the universal human conditions. The tree as symbol of regeneration was prominent and mirrored a cyclical view of life. Being the earliest work in the park, it is noticeably different from the rest of the sculptures; there is a kind of prehistoric mythmaking where naked bodies are in the throes of the forces of nature.
The man in the Myth
The newspaper Aftenposten mentioned at the time, that seldom had a work of art caused such a stir in Norway, as this fountain. Christian Krohg called the naked, dancing men set in stone ‘bushmen’ and ‘deformed freaks’ and Edvard Munch asked in an acerbic tone, responding to the extensive plans for the park, if ‘there is any sense that I should help with that 110 metre long bridge which Vigeland is erecting to reach across a stream only eleven metres wide?’..
Of course, Mr. Vigeland the genius, surrounded by an aura of mysticism and eccentricity followed in the typical footsteps of many great men before him. He was a difficult person with a hefty temper and implacable style, which brought him numerous enemies. His relations with women were dramatic as well to put it mildly. He married the seamstress Laura Mathilde Andersen in 1900 after she had given birth to his two children, but they separated soon after. By then he already had a burgeoning affair with the 17 year old Inga Syvertsen who was officially his maid but really his life partner for the next twenty years. She too had to endure a whole host of escapades from her master, like Vigeland’s long-standing relationship with Marie Nordby who modelled for him.
Alas, both Inga and Marie eventually had to give way to a third woman, Ingrid Vilberg, 32 years younger than Vigeland himself.
Enclosed by Vigeland’s rooms
The museum, open to the public, appears to be a time capsule, a frozen moment from some bygone time I certainly did not study in school. In the colourful, modernist rooms that shelter his larger than life sculptures, I sense myself being seduced, wanting simply to spend the whole day and night in the comfort of the warm, enveloping walls, letting the light from above caress my forehead as I am stunned at all the hours of labour that lays behind the embodiment of this man’s megalomania. And yet, as often is the case with seduction, I experience a deep-seated aversion towards the whole thing, a psychical repulsion if you will. Who the hell was Gustav actually talking to, and what is this monologue of his all about?
A mausoleum, of course.
The museum itself is dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Gustav Vigeland’s life’s work. In sum, the museum, including his former apartment on the third floor of the building presents his entire oeuvre. And yet, importantly, the museum has also taken on a mandate to be a space where a younger generation of artists, working mainly with sculpture, installations or video-art, can engage critically with Vigeland’s life and art. Through solo exhibitions and Oslo’s sculpture biennial for example, the museum becomes a hub of contemporaneity, and on view right now, until February, is Ann Iren Buan’s exhibition, Around Us Surruond Us.
Buan’s practice deals with decay and renewal, and in this exhibition she is showing what she herself calls ‘sculptural drawings’. Her works are massive while at the same time frail, sophisticated and simple. They are never just about form, but rather mirror life in some little detail; a person, a piece of skin, or a landscape. I wonder if she is reflecting Vigeland himself or trying to get under his skin? Is she mirroring his frailty, his constant need for affirmation and applause? Is she showing us what we cannot easily see, what’s underneath, or what the artist himself was trying to shield from view?
Buan’s work occupies a borderline between drawing and sculpture. She makes use of different kinds of paper and dry pastels. The paper is coloured, glued, ripped apart and worked on until it assumes a sculptural form, either standing freely in the room or hung on the wall. In several works she uses plaster and steel, not to reinforce the works, but rather in order to let the plaster fall off, showing us the skeletal structure behind the vulnerable façade. The result is work that reminds us of ruins, and decay.
What I find perhaps most touching about Buan’s work, vis a vis Vigeland, is how her works, once completed in one space will be brought down and destroyed, recycled if you will in order to make the raw material for new works in other spaces. Decay and regeneration as Vigeland himself might approve of, without the concomitant need to also have the works in their present form, be literally set in stone for all foreseeable future; unlike the Master himself, there is no self-portrait of her, by the entrance.
Miller and Fortun from the bath
Having had a great fondness for Lee Miller’s photographic work for many years, I was happy to see that Fortun got into Vigeland’s bathtub, like Miller did in Hitler’s Munich apartment, appropriating that iconc image, taken by herself with David Scherman just hours after the Americans entered Munich and hours before the leader took his own life. Not that the two men are comparable in that sense, but there is an affinity between Lee and Marthe and their daring to enter these domestic scenes stark naked, with no fear of others undressing them…and so, I’m tempted to say that Fortun’s performance manages in its own way to penetrate the fortress of Vigeland’s iconic art and the museum he left behind in a similar way.
“tiny objects arranged around a body which is now, eternity broken to pieces” Ramm Fortun says about Miller’s image.
At the same time, her critique is not one-dimensional, as art critic Kjetil Røed wrote in Periskop, ……’of Ramm Fortun there is no statue or dead bust..and by showing the dissonance in Vigeland himself, or at least in his field of interest-she creates a friction between the collective and strong, and the naked and vulnerable. It hits me, as I stand there a little bit uneasy, but still with admiration, that the strength is in the combination. Ramm Fortun’s performance does not provide us with a clear message set up against the legendary sculptor. Still, it is the wild and rich spectrum of associations she provides in her rants, and her insistence on the living, the fertile, what is now, instead of the stiffened and hard in a tradition of accumulated power of the museum that I am left with.
Her performance is life-affirming and expansive as she slaps away at Vigeland’s buttocks of stone. She leads us towards that moment when her living body and riotous speech replaces – if only for a moment – Vigeland’s towering sculpture-park. The eternal set against the transient, grounded in a naked body claiming its right precisely because it refuses to hide, insisting instead that power and tradition are not things to automatically bow down to. The mundane, our bodies here and now, these must be regarded with due seriousness; we should lose ourselves in the heroes of history, heeding how it acts upon us with all its authorized importance.
The artist as a maid, muse or mistress, undressed in the master’s library.
Though there have been attempts to narrow down Vigeland’s practice, attaching it to some ism or other, there is no clear cut consensus as to what this would be, and the artist himself didn’t really help. As time went on, Vigeland’s work naturally evolved. There is a big difference between the early fountain, and the works that are found in other parts of the complex, specifically around the monolith at the highest part of the park. In the later works, he worked reductively, leaving the sculptures in some peoples’ eyes, unfinished. Not worrying too much about detail etc. he was creating archetypes it would seem, rather than individuals, which was a clear break from the early days of his artistic career. But even though there is a trend towards simplification and glorification of virility, masculinity and life-affirming love, there are also desperate expressions of grasping and complete exhaustion to be found amongst those portrayed in the park.
This vacillation and difficulty in pinning the artist down in relation to his ideological sympathies or views on humanity is something that another young, female artist seemed to grapple with in a widely disseminated and much talked about performance during the sculpture biennial of 2017. Though I unfortunately was not present myself, I have seen the documentation and heard numerous first-hand accounts, calling it both intense and enlightening – an autonomous work of art, a critical intervention and an all out dazzling performance. Stark naked, save for white museum gloves, the artist Marthe Ramm Fortun showed groups of 15 people around the old master’s library and his 300 sqm. private quarters in a performative work titled Walk like a twisted archive.
“Come” she beckoned, in a high-pitched voice to her spectators, “look around”, as if she was a twisted version of a maid or assistant about to give visitors a tour of her master’s residence. During this bizarre tour, Fortun uses her disrobed body and screechy voice to challenge and mock the discourses and myths of a bygone era, made manifest through the library of this artist-icon. Like a medium, she beckons the ghosts of the past (Vigeland, Hitler, and Sappho amongst others) from bookshelves, desks and bedrooms, drawing lines between them, which in turn create disturbing connections. Amongst other things, we are led to question the relation between Vigeland and National-Socialism (Nikita Mathias in Kunstkritikk). However, as Fortun says : «In here, all doors are open. In Gustav Vigeland’s apartment, there is no sound of a unison ideological agreement’. Here, we find the prelude of two world wars..’
And so, with Mr Røed’s well chosen words, I can leave Mister Gustav Vigeland alone for now, and move on, by following Ms Buan and Ms Fortun’s artistic practice as they keep on unveiling said truths with their nuances and humanism, in dialogue with the past and the present... I can go back to my kitchen and enjoy my very own Lee Miller photograph hanging on the wall above the kitchen sink at home, Picnic at Mougins 1937.. of Nusch and Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray, Ady Fidelin..in Picassos garden. The women with their tops off, the men looking slightly uncomfortable but happy,- the surrealists. I do my dishes in front of it every day.
And for those who didn’t fall asleep whilst reading this, or got summoned back onto facebook, frieze.com, or the daily news, but lasted the whole text through, -the museum is so worth the visit if I didn’t make that very clear. And while you’re there, make sure to take note of the naked blue steel sculpture by Sverre Wyller just outside the museum entrance with it’s long casting shadows. It is as if it looks different every time I drive past it, reaching out for passers by.
WORDS: Elisabeth Aarhus
PHOTOS (from Vigeland Museum): Elisabeth Aarhus