Johanna SummersComment

The Art of Oslo City Hall Brings to Life Norway’s History & Culture

Johanna SummersComment
The Art of Oslo City Hall Brings to Life Norway’s History & Culture
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The public art collection of Oslo City Hall is an inspiring reminder to travelers that cultural heritage sites include those of the 21st century. While of the modern era, Oslo City Hall is a historically significant structure–that also happens to contain an extraordinary art collection. Representing the movements dominating the Norwegian art scene from the 1930s throughout the 1950s, the work presented at Oslo City Hall encompasses a wide range of mediums, including vibrant and compelling frescoes, tapestries, sculptures and paintings, all depicting Norwegian history, values and traditions. Oslo City Hall (in Norwegian, Oslo rådhus) is situated in the Pipervika neighborhood in downtown Oslo, located between the Oslofjord inlet, Akershus Fortress and the City Hall Square.  Pipervika means ‘the piping bay’; the verb "pipe" in Scandinavian is often used to describe the sound of strong wind.

I can’t say I heard the wind, but I did feel a refreshing breeze as I approached Oslo’s City Hall by water.  I had just explored Norway's ancient past visiting the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History and Viking Ship Museum located across the harbor on Bygdoy Peninsula. In the span of a 20-minute ferry ride, I was being transported from the eras of antiquated royal burial goods, Middle Age wooden stave churches, and 18th century dowry chests to a collection of 21st century Norwegian cultural treasures at Oslo City Hall. 

While the modern civic center seemed worlds away from the eras featured at the Bygdoy Peninsula museums, it became clear that a common denominator across the centuries is the enduring need to make sense of the human experience through artistic expression–whether that be the intricate carvings of the 9th century Viking Oseberg ship,12th century houses of worship, the stylized floral ornamentation of rosemaled furniture, or the vibrant murals of Oslo City Hall.

For the past 19 years, Sigrun Myrmellem has been part of the administrative team that oversees the art presented in Oslo City Hall. The position involves responsibility for procurement, contract management, arts management, development of administration services. Sigrun assists in product development, design of furniture and is a liaison with Olso’s Cultural Heritage Management Office.

Sigrun was kind enough to share background on Oslo City Hall's history, as well as insights on the themes and artists represented in its public art collection, along with some personal observations and experiences. I think you'll enjoy her "tour"!

Meg: Can you explain the history of both the building and the public art collection?

Sigrun: The planning and building of the City Hall took place in turbulent times, during and between 1st and 2nd World War. Additionally, it may be mentioned that Norway won, at last, its independence from Sweden in 1905.  The decoration reflects an enthusiasm for art rooted in national self-assertion and the wish to reach out to a wide public. From this it was a short jump to using art as an instrument in popular education.

Oslo City Hall was planned with the thought of extensive decoration in mind. It was, however, necessary to be certain that there were Norwegian artists who would carry out the planned embellishment. In Norway painter Edvard Munch and sculptor Gustav Vigeland were the country’s two truly greatest artists, in the early 1900s. However, it took time to realize the dream of a new city hall in Oslo. The City Hall, which was completed 1950, came too late for them.

At this time monumental painting, and particularly mural paintings, played an important role in Norwegian art. Axel Revold, Alf Rolfsen, Per Krohg (The so-called Fresco Brothers) and Henrik Sørensen were the key artists. Their take-off point, with the exception of Rolfsen, was their studies under Fauve artist Henry Matisse in Paris. In addition, some of the artist were interested in Cubism, and to a certain point looked to the compositional principles developed by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The fresco period (ca 1920-1960), characterized by monumental decorations done in fresco, are distinguished by easily interpreted figurative compositions. Subject-matter is taken from modern society’s activities and the life of workers. Some of the artists were arrested by the Nazis and spent time as prisoners during World War 2. Relation with the Nazis was not always easy to sustain in the work with the City Hall. This is reflected in specific themes based on their own experience.

The Security Council Chamber of the United Nations building in New York is decorated by Per Krohg, one of the Fresco Brothers.

Meg: Can you share some background on how the artists and themes were chosen? 

Sigrun: January 9th 1937 the Municipality of Oslo, announced a competition for embellishment open to Norwegian painters. The program had not specified particular themes or expressive media. In a city hall there is a wide range of activities. People with different opinions meet and political parties make their decisions. Guidelines might point towards a particular political or cultural standpoint.  For this reason the competition entry was confined to describing the functions of the space to be decorated and it was left to the competition participants to decide what was suitable as far as content and presentation were concerned.

The competitions for paintings and sculpture were set to run at the same time. It was considered less problematic for sculptors to carry out given themes.  The city founder, equestrian statue, patron saint, fountains usually play a part in city hall decorations, and was mentioned in the competition program.

There were later additions. In 1949 the Oslo Stock Exchange and the Federation of Trade Unions together with The Oslo Association of Professionals each offered to donate a decoration in the City Hall.

Celebration of freedom and the National Day is one example of Norwegian culture and heritage illustrated in the artworks. Alf Rolfsen’s work, The Occupation frieze, culminates in the Norwegian Constitution Day celebration, May 17.  An aspect of the celebration is its non-military nature. There are children’s parade and games. Depending on the community, the parade may make stops at particular sites along the route, such as a nursing home or war memorial. In addition to the children's parades the streets are filled with young and old, dressed in traditional costumes (bunad), waving flags.

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Meg: Can you describe a childhood memory of Constitution Day?

Sigrun:  As a child I sang in a choir, and my childhood memories of the Norwegian Constitution Day are related to the choir's performances this day. I had to get up early, eat a hearty breakfast, and get dressed in uniform. At 8 am we were singing at the hoist of the flag, and participation during morning service in our local church. Next stop was a national honorary cemetery in Oslo. We sang a few songs at the grave of Henrik Ibsen, our national poet.  And of course we went singing in the children's parade. Eventually we got hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks.

As children we are taught to understand that celebrations of Constitution Day marks Norway's freedom, and that we should be grateful for what previous generations have accomplished.

Meg: Can you touch on a few of the other significant historical and cultural themes reflected in Oslo City Hall’s public art collection?

Sigrun: Other examples are aggressive labor movement and struggle for women's rights, illustrated in Reidar Aulie’s painting The Labor Movement’s Development in Oslo. His painting reflects a society in which all the important battles are won. Strike, demonstrations, placards listing workers’ demands is used to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from employers. In the name of fellowship and equality of status we have created our welfare society. Norway was among the first European country to introduce women's suffrage. Finland was first. Norway followed, granting full women's suffrage in 1913.

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The trolls appear in old Norwegian fairytales, and they are to be found in Aage Storstein’s fresco in the West Gallery. Troll is the personification of Evil. The stories have an educational and moral function. Folk tales knows all human weaknesses, scene by scene shows us how easy it is to give up, and how terribly important it is that we do not. We may in fact miss the princess and half the kingdom, the vision of the free man.

My parents read folk tales for me as a child, before I went to bed. Folk tales I appreciated the most were about “Askeladden,” a male Cinderella. The stories could be pretty brutal, but they have a happy ending. The hero wins and evil is punished, trolls dies. I remember this as a great part of childhood.

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Meg: There is a very compelling series of murals that depict the Nazi occupation of Norway. Can you share a little bit about these works, the artist, and that period of time in Norway's history?

Sigrun: Alf Rolfsen's "Occupation Frieze" is on the east wall of the Central Hall--it is here that the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony has been held annually since 1990.

In the Occupation Frieze, there are some references to concrete places such as Gestapo headquarters, and historical events and people such as the execution of Wiggo Hansteen and Rolf Wickstrøm by the Germans during their five-year occupation of Norway (1940-1945). It is, however, predominantly a chronological depiction of the Occupation period in Norway in the form of characteristics, but freely executed scenes, some of which have symbolic character.

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Rolfsen’s personal experiences during the war pervade the frieze. On December 12, 1944, the day after his 21st birthday, his son Jens Christian’s ship was torpedoed in Northern Norway. Young Rolfsen was killed instantly. Alf Rolfsen’s cousin, the poet Nordal Grieg, was shot down over Berlin, Germany, and killed in 1943. Other family members gave cover to Resistances fighters.

Per Krohg’s fresco in the East Gallery also contains scenes from the Nazi occupation of Norway. After the war, at the top of the north wall, he placed a man and a woman in concentration camp enclosed by barbed wire, and in front of them resistance to the intruders is shown. Resistance to Nazism is seen as a nightmarish battle against giant insects. The artist wartime memories come alive in this detail of the decoration.

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Meg: Can you share some history about the sculptures outside the museum?

Sigrun: Wooden friezes in the City Hall’s courtyard are made by Dagfin Werenskiold (1892-1977), painter and sculptor. Exhibits of his work are to be found in the National Gallery in Oslo and other public collections in Norway.

Werenskiold's artistic expressions span painting, friezes, sculpture, graphics, ceramics and glass painting. Most distinctive are his painted wooden friezes, where he continues an old Nordic tradition established in ecclesiastical and rural art.

Dagfin Werenskiold has completed 16 wooden friezes on the walls of the courtyard. Werenskiold's motifs are from Norse mythology. Here we find ancient myths about creation, the life of gods, the sources of wisdom, about love, hate, war, destiny, revenge, the demise of old worlds and powers, and magnificent visions of the future.

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The historic sources includes divine and heroic poems first recorded in the 13th century after having survived many hundreds of years as a lively oral tradition.

Each frieze is made by pine deck timber which is glued together into blocks weighing approximately 1000 kg (2200 lbs). The friezes are impregnated with a triple application of linseed oil, then painted and gilded with gold or silver. Werenskiold himself has said that his friezes "are based upon the rhythm, the principle of balance, upon a totally natural and free foundation, without the golden mean and geometrics".

Odin, the most powerful of gods, rides his eight-legged Sleipner, the fastest stallion in the world. Odin's spear Gungne strikes everything he hurls it at. Odin's two ravens Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) fly out every day into the wide world and bring news back to their master.

After Odin, Tor is the next most distinguished god. He is the god of strength and often battles with the giants. Tor owns three valuable things: The hammer Mjollne that always strikes when thrown and returns of its own volition, a pair of magnificent iron gloves, and a belt which increases his strength. When Tor travels in his chariot across the sky and strikes his hammer, thunder crashes and lightning blazes.

Meg: The "Growth" series by Willi Middelfart at the end wall in the Banquet Hall seems to depict an idealized life style, and perhaps a comment on Norwegian appreciation for nature. Can you share some background on these?

Sigrun: In Middlefart's production, landscape subjects from the district of Telemark and Gudbrandsdalen and from the sea side came to play an important role. His use of pale coloring and thinly applied oil paint reveals the impression from Edvard Munch.

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Second World War was to follow and, at last, peace. Symbolizing the fruits of peace, Middelfart suggested a subject with children and grown-ups in Arcadian nudity on a beach. The jury found the proposal excellent. A description of life of the beaches of Oslo Fjord would indeed emphasize the fact that an increasing percentage of the population now had more free time, and the opportunity for healthy activities. Middelfart is also expressing the modernism of that time, at the point of intersection between interest in external reality and the association of individual freedom.

The casual choice of a bathing beach scene as the subject may be open for discussion. The rather loose composition gives the scene the appearance of a collection of life studies – 26 to be exact. This painting is just as easily understood as a socialist utopia, and an ideal picture of the future classless society.

Meg: Can you recall an instance in which you experienced a work of art that made history come alive for you?

Sigrun: The 1896 portrait "The Sick Child" by Norwegian artist Edvard Munchs made an impact on me. Some years ago, we had the painting in Oslo City Hall for a period, on loan from the Munch-Museum. Being alone in a room with “The Sick Child” is different from seeing it in a museum with guards and other visitors. It was an emotional meeting with the painting for me.

The Sick Child - Edvard Munch - 1896 - [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sick Child - Edvard Munch - 1896 - [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The painting is often being associated with the loss of his one year older sister Sophie who died of tuberculosis in 1877 at the age of 15.  The details are toned down in favor of some eye catching themes: the girl's head against the white pillow, the bent neck of an adult woman and contact between the two. At this time tuberculosis was a feared disease that killed many people in Norway. The disease killed a quarter of a million Norwegians life before effective medications were developed.

"The Sick Child" allows me to understand what a tragedy it was getting tuberculosis, knowing that very little could be done. You can feel the grief and despair of the older woman, assumed to be the aunt Karen. She is more distressed than the child. The woman's head is bowed in anguish to the extent that she seems unable to look directly at Sophie, she has reached the end of her endurance. We understand how terrible it is to lose a child.

Meg: What was your path to your role with Oslo City Hall?

Sigrun: History and various art forms have been the focus throughout my childhood. My mother was a high school teacher and history and drama were her subjects. She was also a director in an amateur theater group. We children were early brought to see historical sites as well as museums to see art. This has probably inspired me.

I have no formal education the field of art, I am not an artist. Nevertheless, my employer gave me the opportunity to work with art related to Oslo City Hall. I’ve always had an interest in art, and took the challenge. I learned by other curators, art historians, conservators in Oslo and I am very grateful that they were willing to share their knowledge.

I did not specifically seek a position that involved art management. I saw, however, eventually that there was an unfulfilled need in The City Hall and an opportunity opened up. It was “serendipitous.” I think that situations which correspond to one’s inner essence are not accidental, there is a purpose in everything.

Meg: What do you see as the importance of art in interpreting history?

Sigrun: Art expression is always culturally determined by society and contemporary times, as well as the artist and the recipient. At the beginning art was supposed to be a picture of something real, like a painting of a historic battle. Later came the social reality into the art, and the artists were concerned to describe the community that surrounded them, perhaps - but not always - with a desire to change it.

Art can be an important political expression, it can change, move, explain and elaborate which other communications cannot. War, terrorism and violent events have always influenced art and the artist's role. Socio-critical art has a long tradition in Norway, and one of art's important functions have historically been challenging the political establishment and its version of reality.

The art in Oslo City Hall shows clearly that Norway is a nation that has recently gained its independence. We also see this art pointing to the nation's desire to be part of the international history. For example, I would like to highlight Storstein’s "Human Rights." This fresco shows the background of the Norwegian Constitution in the ideas of the French Revolution.

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Meg: What distinguishes public art from other kinds of art?

Sigrun: A private collector can buy and exhibit exactly the art he or she enjoys, whenever they want and for their own pleasure. Public art should have a diversity of artistic expression and technical / material related solutions. A public curators’ main task is to ensure that as many people as possible are able to experience art of high-quality in public spaces both indoors and outdoors. We fulfil this purpose by producing, managing and mediating art projects at schools, universities, political institutions etc. It is important to have art and architecture to play together, and we have to relate to a commonly limited budget.

Public art can also be aimed at supporting young and talented artists. All this requires a great deal of research. Information and communication are essential aspects. By enhancing knowledge of art, we boost interest in both Norwegian and international artists.

A curator of public art must consider how politically correct he or she should be. How brave can the curator be to point at something new?