Logo The Fabulist

Emanuel Vigeland Museum

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  • By Andy Battaglia
  • Issue 13
  • Shelf LifeJanuary 2012

On a quiet street on a hill on the outskirts of Oslo, Norway, is a museum built by an artist to house his sculptures, his paintings, and his remains. The building itself is a monument to the macabre. The door is imposing, the heavy sort that you have to bend down and lean into, its knob a cast-bronze coiled snake. A low passageway to an inner door requires a shimmy and a crouch. It is rumored that Emanuel Vigeland (1875–1948) wanted visitors to bow to the urn that contained his ashes as they entered and exited the space.

Vigeland, who trained in Italy, Egypt, and Jerusalem at the beginning of the twentieth century, was commissioned to work on the frescoes and stained-glass windows of scores of Scandinavian churches, as well as the first Norwegian crematorium. His father, Elesæus, was a cabinetmaker, his brother Gustav a sculptor whose writhing human forms were installed and celebrated around the world. Emanuel was evidently resentful of his big brother’s success: he is said to have never visited the sprawling Vigeland Park in the center of Oslo, where dozens of Gustav’s sculptures were on display. The insecurity is manifested, perhaps, in that little genuflection required at the door.

Tomba Emmanuelle, inspired by Etruscan burial chambers and finally unveiled in 1959, a decade after the artist’s death, is a museum that doubles as a mausoleum. Only a few visitors are granted entry at any time, and they are asked to keep quiet in a space that goes wild with sound. Windowless walls and a curved ceiling make for long spells of reverberation. (Musicians have recorded here for this special effect.) Electric lighting shines dimly from the floor, so faint as to seem nonexistent. As the eye adjusts to the darkness, images start to float from the walls: women giving birth, men flexing muscles, skeletons making love. The interlocking figures peer down with the masklike faces and decorative swirls of Art Nouveau. A late Symbolist, Vigeland’s interpretation of Christianity was colored by scientific discovery and Darwinist thinking. “When you see a naked human body and are vexed at what you see,” he wrote on a preparatory drawing, “then reproach God for what He has created, if you dare.”

Yvonne Thomsen, my guide to Vigeland’s Underworld, pointed out to me the details in the frescoes: “There’s a hill of skulls with an infant on top, and a skeleton, Death personified, rising up with New Life in its claws,” she said softly. I asked her what part of the phantasmagoric whole was her favorite. “A woman gives birth and the men start to fall away,” she said, gesturing toward an expended pile of bones.

Above the entranceway is an alcove for the urn, made from hollowed-out sea stone, that holds Vigeland’s ashes. Painted on the wall above it, a spray of mist appears to rise toward the ceiling. What was the painter summoning here? “It’s either the atmosphere,” Thomsen said, “or Hell’s fire and smoke.” In the darkness, it seemed like both.

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Photos from the Emanuel Vigeland Museum by Patrick da Silva Sæther