July 27, 2015. Can’t say I ever imagined that visiting a City Hall would my idea of a good time. I tend to associate these bastions of government with painfully boring legal stuff like filing property taxes or renewing my driver’s license. But one rainy summer day, we ran out of things to do during a deluge and decided to check out Oslo’s Rådhus (pronounced “ROAD-hoose,” meaning Council House), the equivalent of its City Hall.
Its massive, rather brooding bulk had always turned us off a bit and made us question Rick’s Steves’ ranking of it as a “most recommended sight” — surely too much aquavit or too little sunlight must’ve clouded Rick’s usually impeccable judgement on this occasion. So with low expectations, we headed over to the harbor, where the Rådhus’s blocky twin towers dominate the skyline and waterfront.
Pretty gardens and fountains dot the landscape surrounding the City Hall, probably in an effort to soften the intimidating hulk of the spare brick building, which squats squarely in the city center like a meaty bulldog guarding its hoard. I have to be honest and say that at first glance, fascism seems to have been the guiding hand during the design process, because the entire look and feel of the hard-edge, colossal structure says, “The State is watching over you.”
While walking by the building during her visit, my niece compared it to a big, faceless factory. Turns out, her assessment isn’t so very far from the mark. Most of the Rådhus was completed during the 1930s, when the Labor Party ruled Norway. Decorative tile friezes portraying different occupations and six bayside bronze statues of idealized laborers testify to the architects and artists’ desire to portray the noble working class toiling together for the good of society and the State.
Inside, while the political theme is similar, the decorative style — a riot of lively, colorful murals and mosaics — is a fortunate departure from the oppressive, staid exterior. Add a lot of “Huzzah, Norway!” storylines that capture cultural traditions and folklore, and you’ve got yourself a real visual party. According to our excellent tour guide, the competition held for embellishing the interior of the Main Hall resulted in so many fabulous designs that the jury expanded the decorative plan to allow more artists to showcase their work.
As I learned in the free guided tours offered in English three times a day in summer (only on Wednesdays in winter): all the materials in the building and all the artisans who built it are native to Norway. This floor tile in the Main Hall depicts old Olso.
Ceramicist Elisabeth (Lili) Sheel created several faience medallions to decorate the walls. This one, entitled “A Fisherman and his Catch,” emphasizes Norway’s maritime heritage and gives a nod to its native Sami people.
Traditional Norwegian folk patterns (which look surprisingly Turkish to me) are typically found in rugs, wall hangings, and upholstery.
A big fan of Norse mythology, sculptor Dagfin Werenskiold created this fountain relief depicting the Well of Uror at the foot of the tree Yggdrasil (the “Tree of Life.”) Three females called “Norns” water the tree and also weave the fate of men (just like the Moirai — shout out to my Greek friends; Greece is everywhere, baby!) Tree imagery can be found all over City Hall, perhaps encouraging Norwegians to remember their heritage in the form of both forestry and folklore.
Artists Alf Rolfsen and Henrik Sørensen painted many of City Hall’s ceilings. Glass-blowing is a big Norwegian tradition, too, as is evidenced by the building’s many gorgeous chandeliers.
Designed by Axel Revold and woven by Ulrikke Greve, this tapestry depicts King Harald Hardråde (Harald the Ruthless), who founded Oslo in 1049.
Even the doors display fine woodworking and metalwork — the motif is of reindeer and trees.
In total, 18 different artists contributed paintings and sculptures to the Main Hall and other chambers, with potters, weavers, tile-workers, and other craftsmen and women pitching in. The result is pretty fantastic, creating an overall temple-like feel that makes sense when you consider that in most countries with socialist histories, the State replaced the Church as the protector of the people.
The hallowed Main Hall holds several particularly awe-inspiring murals. The first, a giant oil painting depicting “The Nation at Work and Play,” shows poor, downtrodden countryfolk being educated, employed, housed, and healed via State-run institutions. Opposite, a fresco represents the pillars of Norwegian identity — fishing, forestry, and industry — flanked on either end by explorer Fridtjof Nansen and playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, both of whom won Nobel prizes.
When City Hall opened, “The Nation at Work and Play” (officially entitled “Work, Administration, Celebration”) was advertised as the world’s largest oil painting, measuring more than 42 x 74 feet. Muralist Henrik Sørenson actually painted it on a series of wooden panels. These in the center depict Charity, surrounded by Culture, Philosophy, and Family.
Across the bottom panels, we see countryfolk mingling with laborers, some leaving off their bunad (traditional costumes) for a chance at city jobs. The scenes on the right recall Norway’s occupation and liberation.
On the left side, at the very bottom below the figures, we see flames destroying Vika, the slum that was razed to make room for City Hall. The fiery scene not only calls to mind the many blazes that once plagued the wooded-shantied ghetto, but also refer to the social revolution avoided by creating better living conditions for its residents. The line of folks above the fire are all responsibly participating in local government and laboring to rebuild the city. Above them, we see healthcare being provided to mothers in Oslo’s new Maternity Ward, and children receiving free education in public schools.
Alf Rolfsen’s fresco venerates Norway’s people — its salt-of-the-earth farmers, fisherman, laborers, and loggers — who hold the country together.
On the far right of Rolfsen’s fresco is playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who symbolizes Norwegian internal explorations (intellectually and spiritually). On the far left is Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who symbolizes Norwegian outward explorations (geographically). Surprisingly Nansen won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the League of Nations. He introduced “Nansen’s Passports” for millions of stateless refugees from WWII who needed a new home and a new beginning. Too bad we don’t seem to understand this same need today.
But perhaps my favorite mural is the one that runs along the east side, which depicts Norway during the Nazi Occupation. It’s actually quite moving, showing German bombers over Oslo; Norwegian men fleeing to the mountains on cross-country skis to organize a resistance movement; Nazi dismantlement of cultural and artistic institutions; Norwegian prison camps and brutal executions; and the first Constitution Day after the end of World War II. I’ll admit the story brought a tear to the eye of most everyone in our tour group and reminded us why City Hall wasn’t finished until 1950.
On the far left of the “Nazi Occupation Mural,” we see men skiing into the woods to begin the resistance movement. Women gather around the town pump to share news, while Quislings (Norwegians traitors who conspired with the Nazis) listen in. On the right, the German blitzkrieg begins.
Despairing families huddle together and hide the Norwegian flag, just as the Gestapo breaks through the door.
Nazis topple columns, symbolizing the closing of cultural institutions like newspapers and the university.
Two resistance fighters are lined up against the wall and executed. Others continue to plot in the basement below, but wear masks and use nicknames so that they can’t reveal the identities of their compatriots if captured and tortured.
Prisoners of war languish in concentration camps, hoping for news of an Allied victory. Finally, the door opens and a prisoner gets his first taste of freedom and the feel of sunlight on his face.
May 17, 1945 — Norway holds its first Constitution Day in five years since the Nazi Occupation.
One more mural in the Main Hall bears mention here: that of the Story of St. Hallvard. I’ve long wondered why the City Seal rather disturbingly shows a seated king with his foot resting on a naked pregnant woman. Well I got my answer at City Hall, where another fresco tells the tale.
According to legend, Hallvard was the son of a rich nobleman and had quite a reputation as a decent guy. One day, a pregnant starving woman stole food from the market, and when the merchants gave chase to execute her, she ran to Hallvard for help. He carried her away in his boat, but the men followed and shot him with three arrows. When they got close enough to realize who they’d killed, they panicked and hung a millstone around Hallvard’s neck, then threw him in the ocean. But the next day, he popped back up, despite the millstone still attached. Other miracles ensued, and soon Hallvard was canonized as the patron saint of Oslo.
Our tour continued with a walkthrough of several more rooms containing absolutely stunning murals and tapestries by other famous Norwegian artists. Two of my favorites were the Festival Gallery — which flaunted not only cubist visions of Norwegian forests and shipyards by Axel Revold, but also a beautiful view of the waterfront from the windows — and the East Gallery, in which every square inch was covered in jaw-dropping Per Krogh paintings that resembled incredibly vibrant, larger-than-life book illustrations.
Tapestries designed by Kåre Mikkelsen Jonsborg and woven by Else Halling feature scenes from an 18th-century marketplace in Oslo, Vaterland.
Revold wanted to show shipping, forestry, and “all that holds our long, long country together.”
The view from the Festival Gallery shows part of where the Vika slum was razed in order to re-claim the head of the Oslo fjord and give City Hall a symbolic position.
It took Per Krogh about ten years to complete the walls and ceiling of the East Gallery. He wanted visitors to feel that they were “in the middle of the picture, a part of its teeming life.” The tree-root imagery is intended to resemble the stained-glass rose windows found in cathedrals.
Per Krogh’s scenes depict Norwegian landscapes and seasons and somehow remind me of Wyeth book illustrations.
A closeup of the winter scene shows Norwegians preparing to enjoy the holidays with cross-country skiing and Christmas trees.
At the top of the farmyard scene, pestilential bugs like earwigs represent Nazis disturbing the bucolic peace of Norway. Their presence casts a shadow over the countryside and cause the tree’s leaves to wither.
A closeup of a busy beehive represents the industrious urban community. Bees fly to the panel on the adjoining wall, which shows folks living in their urban housing similar to bees in cells of the hive.
The Banqueting Hall was also a big crowd pleaser, both because of the fun subject matter (a naked romp on the beach) and the fresco artist’s adolescently entertaining name (Willi Midelfart). Diners here are treated to two portraits of the current king and queen, controversial for their modernity (some say ugliness — I’m talking about the painter’s style, not the Royal Couple, who are purportedly quite lovely both inside and out).
Who doesn’t want to dine while gazing at a typical summer scene in Scandinavia, which includes nude sunbathing?
The painting was originally slated for the Main Hall but was re-assigned to the Banquet Hall (perhaps because of the delicate subject matter?) As a result, two doors now perforate the scene. Artist Willi Midelfart showed his dissatisfaction with the situation by having one of the figures point jeeringly toward the door while giving it a big raspberry.
Queen Sonya, who’s a noted art collector — and an avid photographer and printmaker in her own right — commissioned this painting from one of her favorite artists. I actually quite like this one.
I’m not as crazy about King Harald’s portrait. Somehow it seems to possess a bit more of that state-of-decay look that brings to mind “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Ivan Albright.
Our next stop took us to the “The Munch Room,” where Edvard Munch’s vivid painting “Life” (also called “The Tree of Life”) presides over civil marriage ceremonies today. We also paid tribute to the Council Chambers, where the number of seats on Oslo’s City Council was recently increased from 58 to 59 to avoid tie votes (having eight different political parties can make things a bit dicey.) But the grand finale to our visit was the opportunity to climb the bell tower, get a birds-eye view of the harbor, listen to a live Carillon concert, and watch the musician pound away at the rather bizarre instrument controlling the ringing.
Edvard Munch (of “The Scream” fame) is probably Norway’s most well-known artist. As such, he was asked to do several paintings for City Hall. Dissatisfied with his sketches of laborers at work, he eventually refused the commission.
A Gallery in Dresden, Germany, returned Munch’s “Tree of Life” painting to Norway after the Nazis “cleansed” their art collection of “degenerate” artists.
The Council Chamber wallpaper sports a repeating theme of the three arrows that killed St. Hallvard — not exactly sure what kind of message this is intended to send to council members….
The Mayor’s podium boasts a fantastic mural portraying the St. Hallvard story, as well as images of Norwegian industry and shipping.
The carillon (bell) tower atop City Hall was so loud at close range that we all held our fingers in our ears.
Below the copper tower, a brick room holds the organ-like device that the musician uses to ring the bells. We got quite a kick out of her 20-minute concert, performed by hammering on the levers with her fists and stamping on the pedals with her feet. She studied seven years to learn to play the instrument and gives a live performance every Sunday during summers. (The bells ring every hour, using tunes she programmed in previously — I guess there’s an automated setting?)
The view of Akershus fortress (1250 A.D.) from the top of the tower can’t be beat.
Upon completing our tour, we wandered outside in the freezing drizzle and admired the beautiful swan fountain and the remarkable wood carvings of Dagfin Werenskiold that embellish the covered walkway along the back of City Hall (or maybe it’s the front, depending upon your perspective.) Our final conclusion? Rick is always right — City Hall is well worth a trip and could conceivably be a highlight that I now place on my personal guided tours for friends and family. Aren’t you excited?
Viewing Dagfin Werenskiold’s woodcarvings is like taking a crash course in Norwegian Mythology 101. Here, we see Odin riding across the sky, pulled in a chariot drawn by two goats. Somehow I never pictured brawny Odin catching a ride with common farm animals.
This is the Norse view of Hell: The dragon Nidhogg gnaws at the root of Yggdrasil (the Tree of Life) that leads to Náströnd, the place where murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers are sent after death. He is said to suck the blood of these criminals, considered the worst of the worst.
No, it’s not a keg party, it’s two Norns (fates) watering Yggdrasil.