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.


Laurent said...

You do travel quite a bit and it is always fascinating to read and see your photos. I remember similar buildings in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki.

Quite beautiful with all the allegory of people, folk tales and Gods.

David said...

Allegory: I'm not always sure what the Norse myths have to teach us. But the tree of life does need constant water poured on its ever increasing wounds. Krohg's bee imagery is lovely, no?

Travel: there is a time for that, and perhaps a lot of the bigger ranging is over (I grieve that so much of the Middle East is out of bounds now). But all these little jaunts/junkets have come at once, and I've loved them all.

David Damant said...

Well the Norse myths had a pretty big effect on the days of the week in our Germanic tradition - the days of Tyr, Wotan, Thor and Freya.

As for the Peace Prize, I would say that recent awards reflect a rather superficial judgement.

Further north, Bergen presents some features of interest. I felt that I was getting away from the "usual" Europe, and indeed David your pictures of Oslo show this to a degree. Grieg's house was very evocative except that in my day although the music was performed in the house we the audience sat outside - as it happened, in the rain. Someone told me that they have now built some covering. Anyway, one afternoon we all got wet - I was the leader of a group of say 40 and they were all watching me to see what I would do. I tried to sneak off secretly, but they all followed leaving the performers virtually playing to themselves, poor things. And no serious alcohol was available to warm us up until the evening

David said...

Yes, of course, but I wouldn't call day-naming exactly allegorical. Latin months are different.

I thought the Nobel Peace Prize committee showed admirable restraint in NOT giving last year's award to Malala Yousafzai (her time will clearly come). I'm wondering which awards in particular you thought showed superficial judgment? The one to Obama (pour encourager)?

I'm looking forward to seeing Bergen later this year. Though I'm told one may say of it what the Danes say of their homeland - or Holberg did in Maskarade - that it rains 363 days of the year.

David Damant said...

Yes but the constant rain in Bergen makes the whole place wonderfully green. And the delicious things on sale in the markets - vegetables ( and fish of course) - look and indeed are so fresh. On the boats out of the harbour one has to wear seat belts as on a plane !

I thought that giving Obama the peace Prize before he had done anything ( maybe the American people had)was a bit knee-jerk and not very sensible. And to award the Prize to the EU also seemed a bit superficial. I accept that getting countries to organise themselves democratically before allowing them to join is something of an argument. But Germans are no longer likely to invade Poland with or without the EU, even if that was (unnecessarily) in the minds of the founding fathers ( as someone said, the Germans are now directing operas instead). It would be better not to award the Peace Prize every year but wait for real candidates.

Peter Rolufs said...

Dear Mr. Nice,
Greetings from Kamakura, Japan.

I would like to convey the following information to you if you have not heard it already.

The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Japan's largest and oldest, is embarking on their 100th anniversary celebration world tour.

More than 100 musicians are travelling to New York, Madrid, Paris, London, Singapore, and Thailand from March 11 to March 23. Japanese composers will be featured along with selected greats from the traditional classical repertoire, including Prokofiev.

TPO launched its Facebook page just this morning:

All the details of the tour and program can be found there.

Of course, likes and shares are much appreciated!

Peter Rolufs,
Kamakura, Japan

P.S. I was very recently asked to help launch the Facebook page, and would also appreciate knowing if this e-mail is the first you have heard of TPO's world tour plans. Thanks again!

David said...

A cuckoo in the nest! But since it's a polite one and personally addressed, I've published it. Yes, Peter, I had heard of the concert since the Cadogan Hall does its stuff re publicity. Not a bad idea to couple movements from Romeo and Juliet with Bernstein's West Side Story Dances. I hope to go.

As for the EU prize, Sir David, peace in western Europe since 1945 was surely something to celebrate. I think they make interesting and far from obvious choices.

Susan Scheid said...

Another brilliant photo tour from you! And your double scream is a fitting, not to mention hilarious, close to the post.

Susan Scheid said...

PS: I hit post too quickly. Wanted to mention that I'm reading Kästner's Going to the Dogs. Terrific book. Thanks for the recommendation!

David said...

Needless to say, the Diplo-mate started the in-front-of-the-train thing but won't allow HIS Real Scream to appear, of course. Nor him wearing his purchased reindeer woolly hat and gloves, though it's a super photo (I think).

So pleased you're loving the acuity of Kaestner. How could anyone who reads it not love his clear-sighted humanity or the little things that break the heart?

Susan Scheid said...

Absolutely, about Kästner. Just finished the book today. I love the thought of the Diplo-Mate's reindeer hat scream!

David said...

Sadly the scream and the hat did not coincide; the hat shot in the snow is purely seraphic.

wanderer said...

Well this lovely lively tour all but saves me going back to see Oslo properly. Such gorgeous colours inside; such bleakness, the likes of which we never see, outside. You're a good screamer (which somehow doesn't sound quite right).

Bergen meanwhile remains on K's must-go-back-to list. Not so much for the Grieghallen nor the Guerre Lieder therein, nor that strange frontier feeling not unlike (though far far more civllised than) Ushuaia but rather that we fortuned the two dry days in June when policemen in black lycra could ride their bicycles around and through the markets, and who would have thought he'd remember that?

David Damant said...

Peace in Europe would have happened anyway, since the nations had had such a terrible lesson, and the rise of the USSR created an external threat. More generally, I suppose that I would prefer a more precise definition of "peace"

David said...

Wanderer, I too remember your impressions of the black-lycraed policemen. The nearest we came to that delectability was the half-naked troupe of 'street performers' who did the dance routines inside the Opera House for Alcina. Several Nordic gods among them.

Sir David, you must have reasoned that the peace needed legal and constitutional safeguards, even if that did breed an inflated bureaucracy in places...but it's too complicated an issue to hog the comments to this post, so on we go. Next, please.