Eros in the art of Gustav Vigeland

A fascinating and little known aspect of Gustav Vigelands creative life was revealed at the Vigeland Museum in Oslo.

by Asgeir Enersen

On February 4. 1896 Gustav Vigeland wrote the following in his notebook:

"That two bodies press convulsively together, man and woman, he fertilizing her, he giving her a budding life, or he planting a seed, a seed of life in her womb - Oh God. I think this God-given idea is so enormous, so eternal, so endlessly wise - that people should not be allowed to depict it in art!!"

Gustav Vigeland is best known for his statues of human figures in various stages of life displayed in the Vigeland Park in Oslo. Now, a lesser known part of Vigeland's work is on display at the Vigeland Museum. After languishing in relative obscurity in the storerooms of the museum, the erotic art of Gustav Vigeland was on public display for the first time.

The exhibition consists mainly of a series of sketches involved in erotic acts, and a few small statues and models for statues, often based on the erotic sketches. This exhibition offers a rare glimpse of the more private and intimate aspects of the great sculptor.

Most of the works currently on display at the Vigeland Museum were made in the years around the turn of the century. The earliest of his erotic production is heavily inspired by dionysian and pastoral aspects of Greek mythology and legends. In this early phaze, Vigeland often drew semi-human figures like Pan, centaurs, and nymphs involved in passionate sexual play. One of Vigeland's favorite motives in this genre was the myth of Amor and Psyche.

From 1898 Gustav Vigeland worked on a series of gothic sculptures for the restored Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. His financial situation forced him to ask for this commission, even though this kind of work was far removed from his own artistic ideals. In 1900 he received a scholarship to study gothic art in France for one year. It was during this period that Vigeland produced most of his erotic sketches. In between his studies he allowed his fantasy to roam freely, and he always carried pen and paper around with him. Because Vigeland wrote down the time and place of creation on practically all the drawings he made during this trip, it is possible to follow his way around the country, from cathedral to cathedral.

Emotionally, this was a troubled time for Gustav Vigeland. For more than 7 years he had had a relationship with Laura Mathilde Andersen, who had born him two children. However, by 1900 Vigeland had fallen in love with Inga Syvertsen, a young girl of only 17 years who was to be his lover, assistant and model for 20 years. Still, Vigeland agreed to enter into a pro forma marriage with the mother of his children to secure her position. This all happened in the period just prior to his departure for France, and there can be little doubt that his drawings were heavily inspired by Inga Syvertsen.

To Gustav Vigeland, a sculptor by heart, drawing was not a natural medium of artistic expression. His drawings are rough and simplistic, and they are all made as sketches for future statues. Instead of situating the figures freely on the paper, Vigeland always ties his lovers to a plinth.

The drawings are deeply personal expressions of Vigeland's erotic longings and frustrations, made in an enormously expressive form. In certain of the drawings he shows sexual acts whose wildness is almost frightening; full of brutish power bordering on rape.

Though this is far from apparent from Gustav Vigeland's best known works, he was almost obsessed with eroticism. His friend Stanislaw Przybyszewski, a Polish writer who he knew from the "Zum Schwarzen Ferkel" circle of artists in Berlin, called him an "erotomaniac". Vigeland himself felt that eroticism was a kind of madness. On an undated drawing he has written: "He who is once bitten by love's snake will never heal."

Vigeland once said of the "Zum Schwarzen Ferkel" circle that "we rarely talked about the strange animal which the poet calls woman". He was reluctant to reveal his innermost thoughts and feelings. However, some scattered notes and comments give some clues as to his attitude towards women. In 1897 he wrote this note:

"How many idols have we created. We have decked them with glitter and all kinds of frippery - and not only with inexpensive things. We have painted them with our own blood, made offerings to them with our own flesh, Worshipped them, embraced them, crowned them. And then, when it has been beautifully, magnificently adorned - we have crushed it. But strangest of all is that all the time we were adorning it, we knew that we would smash it; it was as if a little person within us whispered it."

In the same year Przybyszewski published a book about Vigeland's art, called "Auf den Wegen der Seele". He saw "the fallen woman and the pained man" as one of the main themes of Vigeland's art. However, Vigeland himself disagreed to that characterisation.

His relationships with women seem to have been quite ambivalent - full of both love and hate, extacy and desperation. Two recurring themes are the man burying his head in the woman's womb, and throwing the woman away in anger.

Vigeland seems to have been less influenced by the misogynistic attitudes of the time than many of his fellow artists. To him women were equal partners and opponents in a field of battle between the sexes and perverted love. While the portrayal of women posing for the voyeuristic eye of the man was the common way of depicting erotic scenes at the time, Vigeland, in his drawings, shows women participating in the sexual act on an equal basis with the man.

Both in mind and in deed Gustav Vigeland was at odds with the anti-sexual morals of his time. In 1898 he wrote the following note:

"The sexual drive is magnificent, sublime! It has been covered in darkness by misuse. What makes it so filthy in the eyes of the old is that nothing has been so defiled, so slandered... I think it is a grand law of nature."

Gustav Vigeland's erotic visions were on display at the Vigeland Museum in 1996.