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Gustav Vigeland: Hewing ideas, forms, cycles

A swallow? This ''Young girl gliding down through the branches''?

She is one of the figures cast by Gustav Vigeland, Norway's greatest sculptor. He referred to her thus and the nickname took hold.

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His art, invariably figurative, dramatic, often symbolic, overflows with vigor and an ardent sensibility. It responds to the aroused intellectual and to the emotional preoccupations of the time, the period in which Norway was acquiring independence. He combined uncompromising naturalism and sure sense of form with a wealth of imagination. Sentimentalism per se was of the past.

Young Vigeland, nearly always lonely, poor, hungry, and cold, was driven by overwhelming intuitions that begged for expression. He had little actual schooling, learning by making thousands of sketches, observations from life or studies in great museums of Europe. Small stipends enabled him to take frugal trips abroad. And he read; all his life he read.

An immense willpower and unceasing mental and physical striving brought him out of the narrow milieu of his childhood and made it possible for him to give free rein to the torment of a remarkable talent. Hardly past his teens, he was acclaimed a genius. Being exceptionally robust and truly indefatigable, in fifty productive years he created an incredible amount of sculpture. Vigeland the sculptor became Norway's one and only One and Only.

He did not wait for commissions; a suggestion of a concept and he was off to the battle. ''Ideas,'' Vigeland said, ''fully developed, rise in me like bubbles ascending from the depths of the sea'' and ''The inner and outer content are born simultaneously. I have never needed to hunt a form for an idea, nor an idea for a form.''

Extracting from the mass in order to give body to the image he had conceived was natural for him. ''I was a sculptor before I was born,'' he explained. Vigeland dared to let the figures move freely, determinedly avoiding set poses, knowingly ignoring rules. The statues came alive.

He could have acquired a sizable fortune had he sold to the many collectors and museum directors who beseiged him. Instead he wanted to keep his work intact. For that purpose, and to secure room to execute the huge projects dreamed of for years, Vigeland in 1921 made a remarkable offer. He proposed to present the City of Oslo with everything he had made or would thereafter make in exchange for an adequate studio. No money was requested, not even a salary.

The municipality hurriedly accepted and built him a magnificent studio, fully equipped including living quarters. Today it is the Vigeland Museum.

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A vast area, Frogner Park, was also set aside for him; it soon became an open-air sculpture garden. There are 250 large pieces and, unlike those in ordinary museums, all were conceived and realized by one man, Vigeland, and each was specifically designed from its origin for the spot it occupies. Included are several spectacular colossal complexes, of special note the famous 260-ton, 55 -foot high monolithic granite column composed entirely of interlacing humanity, eternally ascending, climbing on others, and in turn being climbed on.

Frogner Park, now known as Park Vigeland, has become Oslo's best-loved, most grandiose, promenade. At its center is the very heart of the sculptor's life work, the great monumental fountain, an impressive structure, too architectural and ponderous to be considered only as sculpture. The walls are covered with a series of high reliefs, sixty in all. On the four corners stand groups of cropped bronze trees, each slightly different, constructed to accommodate the evocative figures Vigeland has placed within them. Together, they present the Cycle of Life, profoundly felt portrayals of man in his different ages, sentiments, experiences, and relations with others.

In the fifth tree, a young girl (our swallow) hurtles toward the earth. Her attitude proclaims Puberty. In a world she comprehends only partially, into an uncertain future, she plunges on, albeit with some trepidation. Her hands are clenched close under her chin, lips parted, eyes open and fixed on a mysterious remoteness. The vertical branches of the tree stabilize the slight body, reassuring her, affirming quietly that she too is a part of nature.

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