The Norwegian capital is now firmly on the art world map
In recent years Oslo has made an historical investment in art and culture. The new National Museum (opened in June 2021) joins the Munch Museum (2020), the Astrup Fearnley Museum (2012) and the Opera House (2007) to form a spectacular group of cultural buildings along Oslo’s waterfront. It all adds up to elevating Oslo from a relatively modest place among cultural destinations to putting it firmly on the art world map. Said the National Museum’s director Karin Hinsbo: “We need to work closely together to use art to make Norway (assume) a position internationally.”
Question: How do you create a world class museum from scratch? Answer: Merge four major art museums and house them in a stunning new building. Incorporating the National Gallery, Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Museum of Architecture and Museum of Contemporary Art as well as a national touring institution, Oslo’s National Museum is the final block in building the Norwegian capital as a world class art centre.
Designed by German architects Kleihues + Schuwerk (Pergamon Museum in Berlin, German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, etc.), the vast oblong of glowing white marble floats above a greenish-grey stone base near the Oslo waterfront next to the ferry ports and Oslo’s iconic Radhuset (City Hall). A chunk of the budget went into the materials and the finish, with its exterior clad in Norwegian slate, oak floors, marble-walled upper exhibition hall and bronze fixings – all designed to last for centuries.
Built on the site of a former railway station (one of two original buildings houses the Nobel Peace Centre, while the old Station Master’s House is now a cafe) and with more floor space than Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the National Museum offers no less than a massive overview of Norway’s art and design heritage.
The first work visitors see in the reception hall is a a tapestry-like work made of 400 reindeer skulls by Maret Anne Sara of the indigenous Sami people of the far north of Scandinavia, made in protest of a reindeer cull enforced by the Norwegian Government. Sara is showing in the Nordic Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
Chronologically arranged, some 6,500 works are on show at any one time from a total collection of around 400,000 pieces. Almost 90 rooms and halls are spread over two floors with the ground floor displaying craft from antiquity to the present day and the upper floor spanning the Renaissance to contemporary work – in all, 3,000 years of art.
The stand-out feature is the Light Hall, a colossal, 2,400 square metre cuboid for changing exhibitions with walls made from thin, translucent layers of marble between panes of glass. At night the entire floor glows with the light from 9,000 energy-efficient LEDs and can be seen from planes approaching Gardermoen Airport. Bonus: Sweeping views of the harbour and fjord from the roof.
The many highlights elsewhere in the vast museum include: Harald Sohlberg’s ‘Winter Night in the Mountains’, voted Norway’s favourite painting; an Impressionism room with works by Monet, Morisot, Manet, Degas, Delacroix, Courbet, Cezanne and Gaugin and an 1889 Van Gogh self-portrait painted while he was a patient at the asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence after mutilating his ear; rooms devoted to themes such as landscapes, weather patterns, portraits, forces of nature, mountains and coastlines; the Fairy Tale Room evoking magic and enchantment amid a nature-inspired sound installation by Norwegian composers; and, of course, the Munch room with 18 paintings by the country’s favourite artist, including the earliest and most famous of four versions of ‘The Scream’ (the second most famous painting in the world?)?
Next to the National Museum, it is worth popping into Oslo’s huge, red brick Radhuset (City Hall). The huge, marbled-floored main hall is decorated with wall paintings depicting Norwegian history, culture, industry and fishing, the curtains are emblazoned with geometric designs and the facade sports pine friezes of folkloric figures.
Located directly opposite the Palace Park, which surrounds the Royal Palace, the Kunstnernes Hus (Artists’ House) was established by artists in 1930 to show contemporary Norwegian and international art. Flanked by two bronze lions symbolising freedom and creativity, the iconic building hosts a lively programme of exhibitions, films, talks, guided tours, concerts and seminars.
Among the gallery’s stellar past exhibits was Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, which was shipped to Norway immediately after it was exhibited at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1936. The legendary anti-war work was shown alongside works by Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. (Picasso stayed in Paris, deeming Oslo in January too cold to visit.)
In 1968 Andy Warhol attended Norway’s first Pop Art exhibition at the Kunstnernes Hus, which featured iconic works such as the Marilyn Monroe series, the electric chair series and no fewer than 400 Brillo boxes. (‘Is this art?’, asked the newspaper Morgenbladet.) Other featured artists have included Anish Kapoor and Cindy Sherman.
When climbing the staircase to the upper exhibition halls, look up to see (as if you could miss it) Per Krohg’s 22 metre-long ceiling mural depicting an artist’s development through various stages. There is a pleasant terrace cafe facing the Palace Park.
Standing on the edge of the man-made Tjuvholmen (Thief Island, where executions used to be carried out), the Astrup Fearnley Museum houses the collection of international contemporary art assembled by the late shipping heir Hans Rasmus Astrup. Designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano (the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas, etc.), the sleek, white museum has a sloping roof resembling a yacht sail leaning into a strong wind. (Or is it a breaking wave? An upturned boat?)
The museum is split into two buildings separated by a seawater canal – one showing changing selections from the collection, the other for special exhibitions and in which there is also a cafe-restaurant with beautiful fjord views.
Some works are well known, such as Jeff Koons’ gold and white porcelain sculpture ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’, depicting the King of Pop with his pet chimpanzee, Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-immersed, crucifed sheep trio ‘God Alone Knows’ and bisected cow and calf pairing ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ and Anselm Kiefer’s monumental ‘The High Priestess’ made of rows of lead books in steel bookcases, while more recent acquisitions may never have been exhibited before. Nordic artists are also respresented such as Olafur Eliasson and Elmgreen & Dragset.
Adjacent to the museum is the Tjuvholmen Sculpture Park, which includes Louise Bourgeois’ Eyes’, two huge, round black granite orbs with protruding pupils, Paul McCarthy’s ‘White Snow Cake’, a black silicon group showing Show White and the seven dwarfs, and Anish Kapoor’s ‘Untitled’, a squat, smooth column with a concave centre.
Norway’s greatest sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) left a legacy perhaps unmatched in its sheer scale by any artist in any medium. He is mainly associated with the Vigeland Installation in Frogner Park, named after the district it is in and commonly referred to as the Vigeland Sculpture Park. At 80 acres it one of the largest sculpture parks in the world and the largest by a single artist. Vigeland was also responsible for the design and architectural outline of the park, one of Norway’s top tourist attractions with over a million visitors a year.
Vigeland, who also designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal, devoted over 20 years to an ‘open exhibition’ of his works, his prolific output made possible by a team of master stone masons who were tasked with making exact copies of his plaster casts.
Once inside the park, visitors cross a broad, 100 metre-long bridge lined with statues on both sides, At the end of the bridge is the Children’s Playground, a collection of bronze statues showing children at play. Next comes the Fountain, adorned with 60 individual bronze reliefs, before a double staircase culminates at the highest point in the park topped by ‘The Monolith’, a 14-metre high column carved out of a single piece of stone comprising 121 figures clambering over one another to reach the top. Surrounding its base are 36 granite groups of figures. It took three stone carvers 13 years to complete the project.
On the edge of the park is the Vigeland Museum, a neoclassical building constructed by the city of Oslo as part of a unique contract between a municipality and an artist, which allowed Vigeland to live and work there on condition that he bequeath all his work to the city, which would then operate the building as a museum for his oeuvre.
The museum has around 1,600 sculptures, including full size plaster casts of those in Vigeland Park. The collection shows how in the first two decades of the 20th century Vigeland’s work became less detailed, as seen in smaller, intimate works such as ‘Old Woman Watching Her Husband Die’ and ‘Consolation’, and took on a fuller, monumental idiom which characterises the sculptures in Vigeland Park. Under influences such as Paul Gauguin and the art of antiquity and Egypt, Vigeland’s versions of the human body became more powerful and idealised than before.
The revitalised port district of Bjørvika has seen radical changes in recent years from a shipping port and highway junction to emerge as a new cultural area comprising the Opera House (which also presents ballet performances), the Munch Museum and the Deichman library, which is so much more than a repository for books. One of the largest waterfront redevelopment projects in Europe has spawned an architecturally stunning business and residential district, particularly the Barcode Project with its high rise apartments, trendy shops, art galleries and restaurants.
The Munch Museum (or just MUNCH, to give it its official, all caps name, complete with logo tilted 20 degrees to match the leaning top section of the building) is one of the largest museums in the world devoted to a single artist, with 11 exhibition spaces spread over 13 floors capped by a panoramic restaurant.
The 2004 theft from the original Munch Museum of ‘The Scream’ and ‘Madonna’ (they were later recovered) prompted a sense of emergency about the building’s security coupled with concerns about the conditions in which the works were presented. Hence the construction of a striking new building to hold over 26,000 artworks Munch bequeathed to the city of Oslo along with diaries, other writings and personal effects. The city also owns some 900 works donated by a collector friend of Munch.
Edward Munch (1863-1944) is arguably the most important figure of the Scandinavian avant-garde in the early 20th century. As with Da Vinci and the ‘Mona Lisa’, his oeuvre is dominated by a single artwork, ‘The Scream’ (originally called ‘Despair’, the title of another painting with a male figure), a fact which does little justice to a supreme illustrator of human emotion.
The main exhibition is organised thematically covering subjects such as Alone, Death, Love, Gender, Outdoors, Naked, One’s Self and so on, revealing Munch’s exploration of different media. The largest hall, Munch Monumental, holds the artist’s largest work, the 50 square metre painting ‘The Researchers’, and ‘The Sun’, which was originally created for Oslo University – so big they had to be craned through a slot in the side of the building, with workers hanging from the roof to guide them in. Along from the museum is Tracey Emin’s massive bronze sculpture ‘The Mother’, her largest work to date.
Next to the Munch Museum, the Oslo Opera House seems to jut out of the fjord like a giant ice floe, with visitors free to walk all over its sloping roof, intended as its was by the designers as a public space. Inside, the foyer is a light, open space with soaring, undulating oakwood walls. There are tours of the backstage area and the Main Stage.
Opened in 2020, the six-floor Deichman library completes a trio of remarkable public buildings in the new creative quarter. Oslo’s main library – named in 2021 as the world’s best – continues Scandinavia’s unmatched tradition of eye-popping architecture.
Out on the fjord, Monica Bonvicini’s sculpture She Lies floats on its concrete platform like a steel and glass iceberg, turning on its axis with the tides and wind and reflecting the water off its transparent surfaces.
For a bit of gallery-browsing, head for the Oslo Art District just west of Bjørvika, where a dozen or so independent galleries are clustered within a few streets of one another.
A 15-minute bus or train ride west of the city centre, the Henie Onstad Art Centre stands on a beautiful headland overlooking a marina-filled fjord and surrounded by parkland dotted with 30 sculptures. The centre holds the modernist and contemporary art collection assembled by the legendary Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie and her ship-owner husband Niels Onstad. Although completed as early as 1968, the building – all glass, stone, wood, natural concrete and copper – looks as fresh as it did the day it opened.
There are changing displays from the 8,000-work core collection, which emphasises the collectors’ interest in 1950s art such as the geometric abstractions of the Paris school, as seen in works by Fernand Leger and Paul Klee, and a more ‘brutal’, Nordic expressionism, as in works by the CoBrA artists. There is also a full programme of special exhibitions.
Depending on when you visit, you may see works by the likes of Rene Magritte and Kurt Schwitters (who fled Nazi Germany’s distaste for ‘degenerate’ art and spent some years in Norway), selections from the centre’s Fluxus collection, graphic work by the Czech-born artist Zdenka Rusova (the first female rector at the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo), examples of ‘op art’ by its pioneer Victor Vasalery, black and white photography by the Norwegian master Kåre Kivijärvi and much more.
There is also a permanent, walk-though installation by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama entitled ‘Hymn of Life’, a room opened in 2018 as part of the centre’s 50th anniversary in which pulsating lights of changing colours reflect from the mirrored walls and floor to immerse the visitor in one of the artist’s fantasies about infinity and the longing to be swallowed up by the world. The centre also has a two metre-high pumpkin sculpture by Kusama, a motif popular with the artist for its “grandiose unpretentiousness” and “solid, spiritual base”.