Despite the mammoth proportions of the Oslo conurbation, the city centre has remained surprisingly compact, and is easy to navigate by remembering a few simple landmarks. From the Oslo S train station, at the eastern end of the centre, the main thoroughfare, Karl Johans gate, heads directly up the hill, passing the Domkirke (Cathedral) and cutting a pedestrianized course until it reaches the Stortinget (Parliament building). From here it sweeps down past the University to Det Kongelige Slott, or Royal Palace, situated in parkland – the Slottsparken – at the western end of the centre. South of the palace, on the waterfront, stands the ever-expanding AkerBrygge shopping and leisure complex, across from which rises the distinctive twin-towered Rådhus (City Hall). South of the Rådhus, on the lumpy peninsula overlooking the harbour, rises the severe-looking castle, Akershus Slott. The castle, the Stortinget and Oslo S form a rough triangle enclosing a tight grid of streets that was originally laid out by Christian IV in the seventeenth century, but now holds many of the city’s most imposing early twentieth-century buildings. For many years this was the city’s commercial hub, and although Oslo’s burgeoning suburbs undermined its position in the 1960s, the district is currently making a comeback, reinventing itself with specialist shops and smart restaurants.
The Hjemmefrontmuseum (Resistance Museum) occupies a distinctive old building just outside the castle entrance, an apt location given that the Gestapo had the habit of executing captured Resistance fighters a few metres away – after torturing them inside the castle first. Labelled in English and Norwegian, the displays detail the history of the war in Norway, from defeat and occupation through resistance to final victory. There are tales of extraordinary heroism here – notably the determined resistance of hundreds of the country’s teachers to Nazi instructions – plus a section dealing with Norway’s Jews, who numbered 1800 in 1939; the Germans captured 760, of whom 24 survived. There’s also the moving story of a certain Petter Moen, who was arrested by the Germans and imprisoned in the Akershus, where he kept a diary by using a nail to pick out letters on toilet paper; the diary survived, but he didn’t. Other acts of resistance included the sabotaging of German attempts to produce heavy water for an atomic bomb deep in southern Norway, at Rjukan, but there’s also an impressively honest account of Norwegian collaboration: fascism struck a chord with the country’s petit bourgeois, and hundreds of volunteers joined the Wehrmacht. The most notorious collaborator was Vidkun Quisling, who was executed by firing squad for his treachery in 1945. When the German army invaded in April 1940, Quisling assumed he would govern the country and made a radio announcement proclaiming his seizure of power, though in the event the Germans soon sidelined him, opting for military control instead.
The grand, nineteenth-century mansions bordering the southern perimeter of the Slottsparken once housed Oslo’s social elite. It was here, in a fourth-floor apartment at Arbins gate 1, on the corner of what is now Henrik Ibsens gate, that Norway’s most celebrated playwright, Henrik Ibsen, spent the last ten years of his life, strolling down to the Grand every day to hold court. Admirers did their best to hobnob with the great man as he took his daily walk, but Ibsen was unenthusiastic about being a tourist attraction in his own lifetime and mostly ignored all comers – no one could ever accuse him of being overly sociable. Ibsen’s old apartment is now incorporated within the Ibsenmuseet (Ibsen Museum), which begins with a well-considered introduction to Ibsen and his plays, exploring, over two small floors, the themes that underpinned his work and his uneasy relationship with his home country. Beyond, Ibsen’s apartment has been restored to its appearance in 1895, including many of the original furnishings, but it can only be visited on a guided tour (hourly; no extra charge). Both Ibsen and his wife died here: Ibsen breathed his last as he lay paralysed in bed, but his wife, unwilling to expire in an undignified pose, dressed herself to die sitting upright in a chair in the library. Ibsen was argumentative to the end – famously, his final words were “To the contrary” in reply to his poor old maid, who had tried to cheer him up by suggesting he was looking better.
Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828–1906), Norway’s most famous and influential playwright, is generally regarded as one of the greatest dramatists of all time, and certainly his central themes have powerful modern resonances. In essence, these concern the alienation of the individual from an ethically bankrupt society, loss of religious faith and the yearning of women to transcend the confines of their roles as wives and mothers. Ibsen’s central characters often speak evasively, mirroring the repression of their society and their own sense of confusion and guilt, with venomous exchanges – a major characteristic of the playwright’s dialogue – appearing whenever the underlying tensions break through. Ibsen’s protagonists do things that are less than heroic, often incompetent, even malicious. Nevertheless, they aspire to dåd – acting with heroism – arguably a throwback to the old Norse sagas. These themes run right through Ibsen’s plays, the first of which, Catalina (1850), was written while he was employed as an apothecary’s assistant at Grimstad on the south coast.
The alienation the plays reveal was undoubtedly spawned by Ibsen’s troubled childhood: his father had gone bankrupt in 1836, and the disgrace – and poverty – weighed heavily on the whole family. More humiliation followed at Grimstad, where the shy, young Ibsen worked for a pittance and was obliged to share a bed with his boss and two maids, which resulted in one of them bearing him a child in 1846. Ibsen escaped small-town Norway in 1850, settling first in Oslo and then Bergen. But he remained deeply dissatisfied with Norwegian society, which he repeatedly decried as illiberal and small-minded. In 1864, he left the country and spent the next 27 years living in Germany and Italy. It was during his exile that Ibsen established his literary reputation – at first with the rhyming couplets of Peer Gynt, featuring the antics of the eponymous hero, a shambolic opportunist in the mould of Don Quixote, and then by a vicious attack on provincial values in Pillars of Society. It was, however, A Doll’s House (1879) that really put him on the map, its controversial protagonist, Nora, making unwise financial decisions before walking out not only on her patronizing husband, Torvald, but also on her loving children – all in her desire to control her own destiny. Ghosts followed two years later, and its exploration of moral contamination through the metaphor of syphilis created an even greater furore, which Ibsen rebutted in his next work, An Enemy of the People (1882). Afterwards, Ibsen changed tack (if not theme), firstly with The Wild Duck (1884), a mournful tale of the effects of compulsive truth-telling, and then Hedda Gabler (1890), where the heroine is denied the ability to make or influence decisions, and so becomes perverse, manipulative and ultimately self-destructive.
Ibsen returned to Oslo in 1891. He was treated as a hero, and ironically – considering the length of his exile and his comments on his compatriots – as a symbol of Norwegian virtuosity. Indeed, the daily stroll he took from his apartment to the Grand Hotel on Karl Johans gate became something of a tourist attraction in its own right – not that Ibsen, who was notoriously grumpy, often wanted to talk to anyone. Ibsen was incapacitated by a heart attack in 1901 and died from the effects of another five years later.
The toings and froings of Scandinavian royalty can be befuddling, but few accessions were as unusual as that of Karl XIV Johan (1763–1844), king of Norway and Sweden. Previously, Karl Johan had been the Napoleonic Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a distinguished military commander who had endured a turbulent relationship with his boss, Napoleon, who sacked and reinstated him a couple of times before finally stripping him of his rank for alleged lack of military ardour at the battle of Wagram, outside Vienna, in 1809. In a huff, Bernadotte stomped off back to Paris, where – much to his surprise – he was informed that the Swedish court had elected him as the heir to their king, the childless Charles XIII. This was not, however, a quixotic gesture by the Swedes, but rather a desire to ensure that their next king was a good soldier able to protect them from their enemies, especially Russia. In the event, it worked out rather well: Bernadotte successfully steered the Swedes through the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars, firstly as Crown Prince to a decrepit King Charles XIII from 1810 and then, on Charles’s death, as the Swedish king, adding Norway to his future kingdom in 1818. Not content, seemingly, with the terms of his motto, “The people’s love is my reward”, Karl Johan had the whopping Kongelige Slott built for his further contentment, only to die before it was completed.
Norway’s largest and most prestigious art gallery is the Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery). Housed in a whopping nineteenth-century building, the collection may be short on internationally famous painters – apart from a fine body of work by Edvard Munch – but there’s compensation in the oodles of Norwegian art, including work by all the leading figures up until the end of World War II. The only irritation is the way the museum is organized: the kernel of the collection is displayed on the first floor, which is convenient enough, but individual artists’ works tend to be displayed across several different rooms, which can be very frustrating. The free plan available at reception helps illuminate matters; the text below mentions room numbers where it may be helpful, but note that locations are regularly rotated.
Near the top of the main staircase, rooms L and M feature the work of the country’s most important nineteenth-century landscape painters, Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857) and his pupil Thomas Fearnley (1802–42). The Romantic Naturalism of their finely detailed canvases expressed Norway’s growing sense of nationhood after the break-up of the Dano–Norwegian union in 1814. In a clear rejection of Danish lowland civil-servant culture, Dahl and Fearnley asserted the beauty (and moral virtue) of Norway’s wild landscapes, which had previously been seen as uncouth and barbaric. This reassessment was clearly influenced by the ideas of the Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), who believed that the peoples of mountain regions possessed an intrinsic nobility precisely because they were remote from the corrupting influences of (lowland) civilization. Dahl, who was a professor at the Academy of Art in Dresden for many years, wrote to a friend in 1841:
Like a true Poet, a Painter must not be led by the prevailing, often corrupt Taste, but attempt to create … a landscape [that] … exposes the characteristics of this Country and its Nature – often idyllic, often historical, melancholic – what they have been and are.
As for the paintings themselves, Dahl’s large 1842 canvas Stalheim is typical of his work, a mountain landscape rendered in soft and dappled hues, dotted with tiny figures and a sleepy village. His Hjelle in Valdres (1851) adopts the same approach, although here the artifice behind the Naturalism is easier to detect. Dahl had completed another painting of Hjelle the year before; returning to the subject, he widened the valley and heightened the mountains, sprinkling them with snow. Fearnley often lived and worked abroad, but he always returned to Norwegian themes, painting no fewer than five versions of the moody Labrofossen ved Kongsberg (The Labro Waterfall at Kongsberg); his 1837 version is displayed in Room M.
A third Norwegian artist to seek out is Adolph Tidemand (1814–76), if not so much for the quality of his painting as for its content. Born in Mandal on the south coast, Tidemand went to art college in Denmark and taught art in Düsseldorf, but was firmly attached to his homeland, making a series of long research trips to study rural Norwegian folk customs and costumes. Tidemand’s drawings were so precise that they are still used as a reference by students of traditional Norwegian dress, but his paintings are absurdly Romantic, reflecting the bourgeois nationalism that swept Norway in the middle of the nineteenth century. The museum displays a whole batch of Tidemand’s paintings, but his most famous work is the Bridal Voyage on the Hardanger Fjord (Room N), in which Hans Frederik Gude (1825–1903) painted the landscape and Tidemand filled in the figures. Gude was a great friend of Tidemand, sharing his Romantic nationalism and being a fellow lecturer at the art academy in Düsseldorf.
In the 1880s, Norwegian landscape painting took on a mystical and spiritual dimension. Influenced by French painters such as Théodore Rousseau, Norwegian artists abandoned the Naturalism of an earlier generation for more symbolic representations. Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929), for one, dipped into lyrical renditions of the Norwegian countryside, and his cosy, folksy scenes were echoed in the paintings of Erik Werenskiold (1855–1938), who is well represented by Peasant Burial. Of a similar ilk was the work of the novelist, journalist and artist Christian Krohg (1852–1925), whose highly stylized paintings of the poor and destitute pricked many a middle-class conscience. It was, however, his sympathetic paintings of prostitutes that created the real brouhaha, as exemplified by his tongue-in-cheek Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Surgery.
Also during the late nineteenth century, Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914) defined the appearance of the country’s trolls, sprites and sirens in his illustrations for Asbjørnsen and Moe’s Norwegian Folk Tales, published in 1883. Four of Kittelsen’s original paintings are displayed in Room U – and a splendid sample they are too, especially the one of a princess delousing a troll, a time-consuming job if ever there was one. Here as well are examples of Kittelsen’s other work: a self-portrait and a landscape; a wooden cabinet whose shelves hold several dozen Kittelsen sketches; and several panels illustrating a traditional folk song, completed in an ersatz medieval style by Gerhard Munthe.
In Room S, you encounter the works of Harald Sohlberg (1869–1935), who clarified the rather hazy vision of many of his Norwegian contemporaries, painting a series of sharply observed Røros streetscapes and expanding into more elemental themes with such stunning works as En blomstereng nordpå (A Northern Flower Meadow) and Sommernatt (Summer Night). These paintings are comparable with those of Halfdan Egedius (1877–99), as in Opptrekkende uvaer (The Approaching Storm), again in Room S, though Egedius also touched on darker, gloomier themes as in his unsettling Spill og dans (Play and Dance).
The Nasjonalgalleriet’s star turn is its Munch collection, with representative works from the 1880s up to 1916 gathered together in Room T. His early work is very much in the Naturalist tradition of his mentor Christian Krohg, though by 1885 Munch was already pushing back the boundaries in The Sick Child, a heart-wrenching evocation of his sister Sophie’s death from tuberculosis. Other works displaying this same sense of pain include The Dance of Life, Madonna and The Scream, a seminal canvas of 1893 whose swirling lines and rhythmic colours were to inspire the Expressionists. Munch painted several versions of The Scream, but this is the original, so it is hard to exaggerate the embarrassment felt by the museum when, in 1994, someone climbed in through the window and stole it. The painting was eventually recovered, but the thief was never caught. Consider Munch’s words as you view it:
I was walking along a road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became blood red. I stopped and leaned against a railing feeling exhausted, and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on. I stood there trembling with fright. And I felt a loud unending scream piercing nature.
The gallery’s sample of Munch’s work serves as a good introduction to the artist, but for a more detailed appraisal – and a more comprehensive selection of his work – check out the Munch Museum.
Munch aside, the general flow of Norwegian art was reinvigorated in the 1910s by a new band of artists who had trained in Paris under Matisse, whose emancipation of colour from Naturalist constraints inspired his Norwegian students. Among this group, Henrik Sørensen (1882–1962) is the outstanding figure. Sørensen summed up the Frenchman’s influence on him thirty years later: “From Matisse, I learned more in fifteen minutes than from all the other teachers I have listened to” – lessons that inspired Sørensen’s surging, earthy landscapes of the lowlands of eastern Norway. Axel Revold (1887–1962) was trained by Matisse too, but also assimilated Cubist influences as in The Fishing Fleet leavesthe Harbour, while Erling Enger (1899–1990) maintained a gently lyrical, slightly whimsical approach to the landscape and its seasons. Look out also for the work of ArneEkeland (1908–94), whose various World War II paintings are bleak and powerful in equal measure – as evidenced by the fractured, mosaic-like composition of The Last Shots.
Finally, the museum holds an enjoyable sample of work by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, with assorted bursts of colour from Manet, Monet, Degas and Cézanne, as well as a distant, piercing Van Gogh self-portrait. There is also a light scattering of early twentieth-century paintings by the likes of Picasso and Braque, but it must be said that for a national gallery there are few works of international significance, reflecting Norway’s past poverty and its lack of an earlier royal or aristocratic collection to build upon.
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website Lijoma.com. Follow him @keithdrewtravel on Twitter and @BigTrips4LittleTravellers on Instagram.