What to do on a quiet Sunday morning in Oslo? Revel in stunning public art, for starters.
I’d been looking forward to seeing Oslo for some time. My travels in Norway had been exclusively by cruise ship, and the capital figures on very few itineraries. Norway is all about the gorgeous fjords for most travellers; if you want beautiful cities, you take a Baltic cruise and head to Stockholm and Copenhagen. Even the Danes and Swedes seem to look down on their western neighbour as the quaint country cousin.
As it happened, we arrived early on a Sunday morning, and I was one of the first people off the ship. Oslo was very much asleep, and all the shops were closed. I wasn’t too worried; I had my camera and a map and was ready to walk. Shopping wasn’t on the agenda.
My first impression: Oslo is magnificent. Its public spaces are every bit as regal as Stockholm’s. It feels a bit like what Copenhagen might look like if it had a bit more room to sprawl. It is open, expansive, and opulent.
This is a city of sculpture. I have always loved photographing statues; back when I was studying French in Paris I would go to the Louvre every other week to work on my photography skills. Three months later I still hadn’t made it past the Greek statuary. I was excited to see what Oslo had to offer, and my plan was to slowly make my way to Frogner Park, where Gustav Vigeland’s monumental characters were waiting.
Before leaving the heart of town, I walked and photographed sculptures near the Radhus (city hall) and in some of the squares leading toward the university. The majority of them are nudes; unsurprising for a Scandinavian capital, I suppose, but back in North America we still have trouble with seeing the human form. There’s just no call for that kind of thing in public, you know.
After a stop for strong coffee (the Norwegians are the only people on earth who drink more coffee than the Swedes), I headed to Frogner Park. I was surprised at how walkable the city is; what looks vast on paper is really quite a compact city centre.
The park was packed with tourists; apparently it’s one of the most-visited spots in the country. It was a bit of a shock after having been absolutely alone on the quiet streets everywhere else. Busloads of Koreans, French, and American tourists crawled all over the monuments. But the place is huge—there are 212 granite and bronze works—so I made my way toward the far side and started photographing.
I hadn’t really heard of Vigeland before this trip. But a fountain in Bergen of a strange little boy, howling with indignation as jets of cold water bounce off him, had caught my eye. Vigeland’s human figures are unmistakable. His adults are big, robust nudes. Giant, powerful bodies stand and sprawl everywhere. Some of them strike stylized, sculptural poses; others sit and interact with each other in the most casual, intimate vignettes. The faces are unmistakably Scandinavian and utterly human.
His children are different. Their bodies are a kind of exaggerated realism; not quite a child’s proportions, not quite an adult’s. The faces are a bit diabolical. Deep-set, intense eyes sit below furrowed brows, crowned by unsettlingly bulbous heads. They’re a bit off-putting; one travel guide suggested the exhibit would make you reconsider parenthood.
I photographed until the rain started to fall, and then headed for a more sheltered quarter. As I walked away, I turned back to take in the full breadth of the site. It struck me that acre upon acre of prime real estate here is dedicated to one single artist’s work, and its popularity is staggering. There can’t be too many places on earth that show that kind of devotion to public art, nor that kind of commitment to a single sculptor’s vision.
What a civilized place Oslo is. I can’t wait to return.