Norway trip: Oslo

I wanted to relate some of my enthusiasm for my recent two-week visit with Mrs TD to Norway. Although this and any subsequent posts about it won’t be the usual bookish stuff entirely, there will be a literary-cultural aspect, so please don’t look away.

Many Norwegian houses are made from one of the country’s most abundant resources: wood. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and cities have therefore been damaged by fires. After over a dozen such conflagrations, Oslo was effectively destroyed in 1624 in one of its biggest. It was rebuilt and the new town named Christiania, after the then king Christian IV. After a spelling reform in 1877 it became Kristiania. It reverted to Oslo in 1925.

A whole post could be devoted to the Norwegian language. Maybe next time.

Perhaps the best-known novel set in Oslo is Hunger (1890) by proto-modernist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). I wrote briefly about it in one of my earliest posts here. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 – a choice that became increasingly controversial because of his support for the Nazi cause during the German occupation of his country before and during WWII. Everywhere we went in Norway there were stories of the ruthless scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German troops near the end of the war. Whole towns were burnt down and anything that could be used or eaten by the approaching allied forces was destroyed. I hope to say more about the occupation in another post.

The city today bears little resemblance to the one his troubled protagonist roamed through. The area round the Oslofjord harbour is now all steel and concrete high-rises.

The most striking is the Opera House, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. It’s supposed to resemble a glacier, and it’s fun to walk up its sloping sides to admire the view from the top.

Oslo new Munch museum

The new Munch museum is scheduled to open in spring next year

Behind it is the almost finished new Munch Museum. It’s one of the largest and most striking-looking buildings on the waterfront. I’m not sure what it reminds me of most: a racecourse grandstand, perhaps. It’s a rectangular block, but its top few floors lean forwards as if trying to look at the floor. The architects call it ‘Lambda’, but I can’t see the similarity to that Greek letter.

We visited the existing Munch Museum, housed in a less dramatic modern block just off the city centre. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born forty miles from Oslo, and moved there in 1864.

Although it doesn’t hold more than a few dozen of his paintings, the most famous are there, and many of the tens of thousands of prints and drawings he donated to the state in his will. His two most famous – The Scream (‘Skrik’ in Norwegian; I think ‘The Shriek’ doesn’t quite convey the existential horror the picture conveys) and The Madonna – were stolen in an armed raid on the museum in 2004.

Munch Scream

This is I think the 1910 version of The Scream, done in oils; there are also two versions in pastels, and several versions in lithograph

Both were recovered, slightly damaged, two years later. His obsession with these works is reflected in the numbers of versions he produced in oils and prints. Like most of his work, they reflect his lifelong acquaintance with illness, bereavement, love, loss, terror and loneliness.

Munch Madonna

Much has been written about this Madonna (also titled Loving Woman). The pose is ambivalent: erotic, pained, strong, submissive, a victim? The facial ecstatic/pained expression reminds me of the marble Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini












Rådhus Oslo

Rådhus Oslo [Public Domain photo: By Ranveig – Own work, CC SA 1.0]

The other most prominent waterfront building is the Rådhus, home of the city council.

This is where, since 1990, the Peace Prize ceremony is held annually. Alfred Nobel (1833-96) is perhaps most famous for inventing dynamite, but he patented over 350 other inventions, including gelignite. At his death he owned ninety armaments factories (including Bofors).

When his brother died in 1888 a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary for Alfred. So appalled was Alfred to read its condemnation of him as ‘marchand de la mort’ that he made a will donating most of his huge wealth to the foundation of the five prizes named after him, so that his legacy would not be that of a merchant of death. It’s not known why this Swedish industrialist stipulated that the Peace Prize should be decided by a Norwegian committee; the other four are determined by the Swedish academy.

It’s an ugly brutalist building (constructed 1931-50). The mud-brown brick it’s made of has given rise to its unflattering nickname with locals: Brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese that tastes as bad as it looks. But it has some interesting decorative features. My favourite is the frieze of multi-coloured scenes by Werenskiold from the Norse legends related in the Poetic Edda .

Swan maidens

Three valkyries, half spiritual, half earthly, come flying as swans and change into three beautiful maidens. Three brothers discover them, carry them off and marry them. Seven years later they left. Volund remains at home waiting for his wife’s return; his brothers leave to search for theirs [adapted from the caption to this relief in the frieze]

Oslo deer frieze

Four deer grazing on the world tree Yggdrasil’s green shoots. Three of them in this relief are depicted as symbols of ‘peace, cautiousness and timidity’











The other most notable literary figure associated with Norway is of course Henrik Ibsen (1822-1906). Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the museum located at the house where he lived for his last eleven years in Oslo, after spending most of his life in exile abroad – he found the people and atmosphere of Norway stultifying, as much of his drama shows. He wrote in Danish; as I said earlier, so much could be said about the significance of Norway’s relationship to language.

Munch sick child

Munch, The Sick Child. One of his earliest departures from his earlier Impressionist style in favour of the effort to depict his inner soul and emotions expressionistically or symbolically. This is one of six paintings and numerous prints on this theme done 1885-1926; it probably depicts his sister Sopie’s deathbed. She gazes into the abyss – or her aunt’s face. She died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his mother died of the same illness when he was five. Mental illness also ran in the family, the awareness of which haunted him as much as his morbid fear of the precariousness of existence.

Another time I intend to post on the rest of our experience of Norway: by train to Bergen, then the working ferry to Kirkenes…

19 thoughts on “Norway trip: Oslo

  1. The Ibsen museum is closed for renovation, so in a sense you did not miss much.

    That Munch musuem exhibit was utterly unique. I had never heard of such a thing and may never see the like again. I mean an entire museum devoted to an exhibit about the closing of the museum! Pretty strange.

    Even the Scream and Madonna rooms were pretty odd, filled with the debris from the thefts of the paintings.

  2. I don’t know anything about Norwegian, and I’ve only ever heard it in spoken in films of the bleak variety where people speak in monosyllables and everyone has to guess what the silences mean. (I don’t know if we in Australia get that type of film because that’s all they make, or they’re the films that win prizes, or if that’s what local cinemas think we’ll watch).
    However, I do remember my English teacher, who was of Norwegian heritage, telling us that Norwegian is an inadequate language compared to English. He said there were many concepts, ideas and feelings for which there is no word in Norwegian, and it was a frustrating language to use.

    • Lisa: there is a stereotypical view of Norwegians as dour, taciturn, etc. Maybe because it’s dark much of the year, harsh climate, etc. But of course one never generalises. The language is interesting: at times I’d read a notice in Norwegian that looked almost to be in English; other times they were incomprehensible. There’s no word for ‘please’ (as in politeness marker).

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your experience of the Munch museum, I narrowly missed it on my latest Oslo visit so now I know what I could have seen.

    I’m not sure why Alfred Nobel wanted the Peace Prize to be awarded in Oslo but it is less surprising when considering that Sweden and Norway were in a union until 1905, with both Stockholm and Oslo/Kristiania acting as capitals.

    In a similar way it is not really surprising that Ibsen wrote in Danish when considering that at the time he started writing Danish was the Norwegian written language. The first book on landsmål (later nynorsk) was not published until 1856 and bokmål started to really diverge from Danish even later.

    • IReadThatInaBook: You’re right about the close ties between Sweden, Denmark and Norway, that’s helpful; I was hoping to say something about the political and linguistic aspect in another post. Must have been difficult for Norwegians before independence to feel a clear sense of identity or autonomy. Not even a language to call entirely their own. And of course there’s linguistic and ethnic diversity within the population, too: it’s not monocultural. It’s how many people here in Cornwall feel about England and the English- the dominant culture has often proscribed minority cultural language use and expression of differences (Welsh, Basque, etc., too)

      • I agree, I believe that long path towards independence is still seen e.g. in the contrast between how the Norwegians and the Swedish celebrate their National Days.

        I have been moving back and forth a bit between Sweden and Norway and find the subtle cultural differences fascinating.

        • I hope you don’t mind my referencing your comment about language and culture in my second Norway post today. As I said there, I did start a sort of essay on these things, but got too bogged down with the complexities, and thought maybe people wouldn’t be that interested, plus I’m not an expert in Germanic languages. I hadn’t realised, in my ignorance, how much in thrall to Denmark then Sweden Norway had been.

  4. I love those friezes; they remind me of a great one in Reykjavik of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse! I really would like to go to Norway myself but Spain and Cornwall always call louder!

    • It was a fascinating experience, Karen. My recollection of Hunger is that it was astonishingly modern for something published before the end of the 19C. It’s interesting how troubled and angst-ridden Norwegian writers and artists seem to have been, not well disposed towards their fellow human beings, or at least ambivalent about them.

  5. Lovely post, Simon, very interesting to read. As I think I may have mentioned, I visited Oslo for a business trip some twenty five years ago. In spite of there being little free time to explore, we did get a chance to see the old Munch Museum during an evening ‘do’ for conference delegates. Like you, I found the paintings incredibly powerful – disturbing in fact, with their striking imagery and use of colour. The other thing I remember quite vividly is having reindeer steaks for dinner – something of an acquired taste if I recall correctly. Anyway, I’d love to go back again one day, to see some of the countryside as well as the city.

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