Friday, 28 February 2014
Oslo's civic pride
1923, 1931, 1938: these were golden years for enthroning the city/town hall as palace of the people. Stockholm, Oslo and Norwich respectively all put their edifices high on a list of priorities. All seem rather functional from a distance until you look at the extraordinary craftsmanship of the detail, which in Oslo's case wasn't actually polished until 1950, though the foundation stone was laid 19 years earlier and much of the work was done in the 1930s. There's the city hall very much at the centre of the above schools-assisted tapestry lodged in the building itself, and here are its twin towers from the nearby open space just below the Akershus Fortress.
My inadequate city booklet - Berlitz, more or less useless, should have picked up The Rough Guide to Norway in Stanford's because there wasn't one at the airport - tells me one useful thing about it, how 'detractors joke that it resembles two large blocks of brown Norwegian goat's cheese ([exte] geitost)'. Of course I had to look for images of that very produce, and the one I liked best comes from this excellent cheeseblog which gives a very flavoursome description of its making and taste. Sweet, sweet, sweet is the keynote.
Forbidding from a distance, Oslo City Hall welcomes with its details from the moment you step up to the colonnades flanking its impressive main doorway and astronomical clock. Around them are painted wood carvings of scenes from Norse mythology by Dagfin Werenskiold (1892-1977). The swans who turned into maidens on landing catch the eye first on the right.
Stripped of 20th century frocks, the Norns - not the hags of Wagner but pneumatic girls - pour water on the wounds of Yggdrasil, the tree of life.
T(h)or rides his chariot drawn by rams
while beasties populate Ragnarok, the day of destruction.
Inside, Werenskiold also sculpted more Yggdrasiliana above the fountain.
This great hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place on 10 December each year, has some of the biggest frescoes in existence, notably by Alf Rolfse and Henrik Sorensen, which celebrate labour and don't shy away from images of the Occupation.
Don't look too close, though, because while details on the fittings like the reindeer on the doors are superb,
the painting of the bigger murals is crude. Which you couldn't say of Per Krohg's impressive work in the Eastern Chamber upstairs. The wall above the east end has the imagery of bees flying from the hive (the city)
to a rosebush (nature) applied to human effort.
The vast north wall works its way from winter at one end to autumn, spring and summer in the central panel.
Higher up are images of the camp in which Krohg was interned by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Everywhere you look, outside as well as inside, the detail is impressive. A hymn to fisherman on the east wall.
And of course this is very much an active building, with rooms for state-sponsored artists at the top of the western tower and over 300 events a year including weddings/civil ceremonies held in a chamber with a pastoral Munch over the fireplace. Of course the room everyone should see in Oslo is the Munch collection in the National Gallery, including the one of the many Screams which was stolen and recovered next to the blobby faces of The Dance of Life and portrait proof that mighty Edvard didn't just paint distressed aliens.
Looking in the other direction at the room full of Norwegian landscapes and sculptures of varying quality.
The Gallery, due to move to spacious new quarters in some years' time, has impressive selections of French painters, real quality in its handful of Cezannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins. Not enough visitors turn left at the top of the stairs instead of right. Because of Oslo's minor status for centuries, there are few old masters, in fact only one absolute masterpiece, a Goya of a toreador, but the room of icons from Novgorod is a surprise.
My biggest regret, apart from the fact that weather conditions and time shortage combined meant we didn't cross over to the peninsula with the viking ship museum, was that I didn't make it to Ibsen's apartment (guided tours on the hour made it tricky given the patchwork schedule centred around the National Opera). Homage to his National Theatre and the statue outside, though, was essential.
and here in this central oblong of public space, plenty was going on - skating, with Parliament behind
and a musical Ukrainian protest.
I've already posted one picture of the Akershus Fortress, silent and empty in the snow of a freezing Sunday morning. We slowly made our way there over the ice past the old town which includes the former City Hall, a very pretty cafe and barracks-like housing.
All was silent apart from the odd crow and a tramping sentry(below; that's a tramping diplo-mate above)
until we heard bells and organ music coming from the castle chapel.
Passing the stone coat of arms on the left
and an intriguing cellar-like door with royal crown
we found a christening taking place inside the chapel (1500s with baroque accretions) to which we were welcomed, sitting on a bench alongside paper and crayons which little girls rushed up to use from time to time. Modern Norwegian dad knew how to rock his crying infant into stillness.
Pretty as the chapel undoubtedly is, Oslo Cathedral has the bigger treasures, though it isn't really the sum of its parts.
The present building was consecrated in 1697 and much done over in 1848-50, though the Gothicisation then has been reduced in favour of many of the original baroque fittings. These include the 1700 carved altarpiece,
the singular font of 1726,
the1727 organ facade which conceals a state-of-the-art instrument
and the 1699 pulpit,
not a patch on the one in Stavanger Cathedral, but with the curiosity of multiple hour-glasses to time the sermon.
What's relatively modern is well done here, too, especially the chancel windows by Emanuel Vigeland c. 1910.
That's quite enough of old Christiania for now. I'd like to explore further. My Icelandic friend Steinunn pointed out that while Reykjavík doesn't change its essential character too much between winter and summer - though I found it hauntingly empty on a Sunday afternoon in early February - Oslo is a completely different city in July and August. Hoping to return then and see much more in and around the city. In the meantime, a grotesque farewell in front of a real scream of a train in Oslo Airport's railway station.