Norwegian Psyche in Its Art: Romantic Art, Munch’s "Scream," and Vigeland Sculptures
In Oslo’s National Gallery, Romantic art celebrates the country’s love of beauty, and Munch’s iconic Scream personifies the angst of the modern world. In Frogner Park, Vigeland’s many sculptures of people honor all the stages of life.
Complete Video Script
In this distant corner of Europe, many visitors find more high culture than they expect. Norway's National Gallery showcases the powerful beauty of this country's landscape and people as portrayed by its great painters. A thoughtful visit here gives those heading into the mountains and fjord country a chance to pack along a little better understanding of Norway's cultural soul.
Landscapes have always played an important role in Norwegian art. This genre peaked in the late 19th century, during the Romantic period, which stressed the power and beauty of nature.
Stalheim, by Johan Christian Dahl, epitomizes the Norwegian closeness to nature. Romantics reveled in the power of the great outdoors. The rainbow says it all: This is God's work. Nature is big. God is great. Man is small. The birch tree — standing boldly front and center — is a standard -symbol for the politically downtrodden Norwegian people: battered yet still standing.
In the mid-19th century, Norwegians were awakening to their national identity. The Bridal Voyage shows the ultimate Norwegian scene: a wedding party with everyone decked out in their traditional dress, heading for the stave church, engulfed in the majesty of the fjords.
Here, and throughout Europe, nationalism and Romanticism went hand-in-hand. These were hardworking, independent folk. People were poor… but they owned their own land. Paintings like these were patriotic tools.
This painting — Low Church Devotion by Tidemand, from 1848 — shows a dissenting Lutheran church group (of which there were many in the 19th century). Rather than accept the Norwegian king's "High Church," they worshipped independently, in a humble home. The light of God powers through the chimney, illuminating salt-of-the-earth people with strong faiths. Later, many of these same people emigrated to America for greater religious freedom.
Edvard Munch is Norway's most famous and influential painter. In this 1895 self-portrait, we see a complex and troubled artist.
Munch helped pioneer a new style — Expressionism — using lurid colors and bold lines to "express" inner turmoil and the angst of the modern world.
The Scream is Munch's most iconic work. The figure seems isolated from the people on the bridge — locked up in himself, unable to stifle his scream. Munch wrote, "This painting is the work of a madman." This Expressionist masterpiece is a breakthrough painting showing angst personified.
Munch suffered from depression. His father had a mental breakdown. His mother and his sister died of TB. When he eventually overcame his depression, he became a happier man. But he never again painted with such power.
But today, especially when the sun shines in Oslo, it's really not that bad. Wherever I travel, I like to think of public transportation routes as potential tour routes. Oslo's main tram line circles around the city. You can hop on and off, knowing another is always on its way. Trams come by about every 10 minutes, efficiently and economically lacing together many of the city's most important sights.
Oslo's vast Frogner Park is a perfect place to share a moment with Norwegians families at play. Strolling here, you feel a positive spirit — both rugged and pragmatic, celebrating life. The park showcases a lifetime of work by Oslo’s greatest sculptor, Gustav Vigeland.
In 1921, Vigeland made a deal with the city: In return for a great studio and financial support, he agreed to dedicate his creative life to beautifying Oslo with all these statues, which became this much-loved sculpture garden.
From 1924 to 1943, he created a world of bronze and granite statues comprising 600 figures, each nude and unique. Vigeland's sturdy humans capture universal themes of the cycle of life.
Today Vigeland's park is beloved by the people of Oslo. It's both a place to relax… and a place to be inspired. Six giants hold a fountain, symbolically toiling with the burden of life, as water — the source of life — cascades steadily over them.
In clumps of bronze trees, Vigeland takes us through the seasons of life. The centerpiece of the park — a teeming monolith of life surrounded by granite groups — continues Vigeland's cycle-of-life motif. Vigeland explores a lifetime of human relationships in earthbound groups. The figures seem irresistible, as visitors playfully engage with the art. Then, at the center, a tangle of figures carved out of a single block of stone rockets skyward.
Built of bodies, it seems to pick up speed as it spirals skyward. Vigeland left the meaning of his monolith itself open. Like life itself, it’s a wonderful puzzle.