The Mead-Brewers are officially back from Norway! It’s been a while since I’ve had any significant Internet access so it’s been a real whirlwind lately trying to catch myself back up with the working world. My husband and I just returned from our Norwegian honeymoon to a world of unpacking, new apartment renovations, and new job orientations.
However, I knew I needed to pause and take a moment to reflect back on some of the honeymoon here with you all. One of the most interesting aspects of Oslo (our first stop in Norway), was the fact that the city itself is over 1,000 years old and yet most of its buildings are barely 100 years in age. This is due to a variety of factors including the Nazi occupation as well as a number of devastating fires throughout the city’s history. The city hall is one of the most notable examples of this (at least to my mind) because, judging from its artwork, you might think the building was either significantly older or newer than its 1950s birthday.
This is the foyer one is greeted with upon first entering Oslo’s city hall. It is truly a magnificent combination of unique tile work, murals, alien-like chandeliers, grand halls, tapestries, and woodwork. Of course, what I found most fascinating about the building was just how frank and full a story the building was meant to tell. I’ve been to my fair share of historic buildings, buildings constructed for the sole purpose of communicating some key component of a city’s history or identity. But exploring Oslo’s city hall was a bit like walking straight into the pages of some ancient book, a book written with exceptional beauty and, at times, painful honesty.
Before you ever enter the building you are taken through a courtyard of large woodcuts depicting various Nordic myths and narratives. One that particularly caught my eye was the story of Volund the Smith.
Each woodcut came with a corresponding narrative, this one entitled: Volund the Smith has Vengeful Thoughts (pretty fabulous start, right?). The captions are in both Norwegian and English and go a little something like this: One day Volund the Smith was taken prisoner by the evil King Nidud. Nidud severed Volund’s hamstrings and forced him onto an island where he was kept alone and made to forge jewelry for Nidud. But this was not enough for Nidud as he then stole a ring from Volund to give to his daughter, Bodvil. Due to this, the ring broke in half. Bodvil, wanting it made whole again, traveled secretly to visit Volund in hopes that he might be able to mend it. Likewise, King Nidud’s two young sons were also tempted toward the island by the immensity of the treasure Volund had forged during his imprisonment. Once the children arrived on Volund’s island, however, the smith took his revenge on the King by decapitating his sons, mounting their skulls in silver, and then sending the bejeweled bones back to Nidud as a pair of drinking vessels. And from the boys’ teeth he fashioned a brooch for Bodvil and used their eyeballs as gems in a larger piece of jewelry for their mother. Then, just to top things off, Volund raped Bodvil and impregnated her with his child.
This story, told, if you can believe it, even more frankly on the wall of the city hall, is something that people in the 1950s decided they wanted to make a permanent and public piece of their communal identity — and I absolutely love it. I also greatly appreciate the fact that they not only managed to show Volund’s wounded legs in this woodcut but that the two little princes are fresh-faced and waving at the man. Never in my life have I seen something like this attached to a city hall in the United States — certainly we have our myths and national legends that are rank with violence, but we always are careful to doll them up if we even decide to publicize them at all. What exactly am I, an all too brief visitor to the country of Norway, meant to take away from such a story being presented as a part of the city’s identity? Why this story? Whatever the reason, it was a fantastic mood-setter to begin with the supernatural, with this story and other national myths and narratives depicting everything from the first man and woman to Odin and his ravens.
Moving forward from this and into the actual building, we’re rushed by a number of gigantic murals.
In this mural, we see Norway represented by the grizzly bear who is taking a stand against the Nazis, herding them into the dark recesses of a troll cave.
Of course, the Norwegians have no problem depicting moments of national shame or frustration as well. This mural, after all, is only a small segment of a larger, multi-hall mural wherein the Norwegian Bear is also depicted as asleep during the time when Norway was under the rule of the Danish.
In this tapestry, we see an image of the 9th century King Harald Fairhair, the first king to rule over all of Norway. However, what isn’t immediately apparent about this tapestry is that, while it does capture the name Oslo with a reverence, it fails to mention that, for most of Oslo’s history, the city was actually known as Christiania or Kristiania. Though the city was originally called Oslo, long after the death of King Harald in 1624, King Christian IV changed the name of the city to Christiania which it maintained until 1925 when the city elected to change it’s name back to Oslo. Thus, while there very well may still be natives of Oslo today who once knew the city as Christiania or Kristiania, there is little to no mention of this within present-day Oslo’s city hall (though the presence of King Harald Fairhair may be felt throughout the building in a variety of its tapestries and murals).
Another major subject for much of the city hall’s artwork is the working class. Norway is a capitalist country but it does portray a deep respect for The Worker throughout much of its art (which may explain why so much of their public art appears reminiscent of Soviet Russia as well). Here is an example of another mural depicting such pride in The Worker:
All in all, Oslo’s city hall presents a colorful and winding story of a city with a long history of complicated national pride, myths, stories, and histories deeply entangled with those of its neighboring countries. Of course, it also presents a unique intermixing of the supernatural with the natural along with an interesting, almost feminist presentation of the female form and presence in a number of its halls. For example, in many of the murals depicting Norway as a Bear, they also highlight the preeminence of King Harald Fairhair’s mother, Ragnhild.
Of course, this shouldn’t be too surprising as women in Norway have a history of being surprisingly powerful (at least by today’s standards). In fact, according to Marianne Moen, “To assume that Viking men were ranked above women is to impose modern values on the past, which would be misleading” (qtd. in Foss, “Don’t Underestimate Viking Women”).
And, given the pride with which they chose to present these stories of national pride, shame, color, and intrigue in Oslo’s city hall, it got me to wondering what my own city hall would look like if I were to try and create a City Hall of Katie. What myths and narratives would make up my woodcuts? What images and histories would occupy my murals and tapestries? What values and goals would I want my building to highlight and promote? What would I want my visitors to walk away wondering about?
Lately, I’ve been pondering the classic question: What kind of a writer do I want to be? I’m already a writer (by some standards), but where do I want this to go? What stories do I want to bring forward and in what way? Oslo’s city hall brought this question to the forefront of my mind in a way and with a clarity that I hadn’t experienced before and has now left me wrestling with a wide array of implications and possibilities.
Are these questions you’ve found yourself wondering — What kind of a doctor do I want to be? What kind of an artist? What kind of a parent? What kind of a person? What kind of a worker? — or has the answer simply presented itself to you through one experience or another?
How do you deal with the heaviness of the task of building your own City Hall?