by Augusto Andres
A visit to an unusual museum illuminates unresolved issues from the past.
Tucked away inside a renovated church in a quiet Oslo suburb is a remarkable but little-known monument to life and death. So obscure is the Emmanuel Vigeland Museum that even many residents in the Slemdal neighborhood where it’s located are unaware of its existence. Residents and visitors alike certainly know of Emmanuel’s more famous older brother, Gustav Vigeland, whose eponymous park and its 200 life-sized granite sculptures is the most popular attraction in Oslo. But most Norwegians know little to nothing about Emmanuel, and his museum remains a kind of hushed secret passed between those lucky enough to visit. Until my friend and Oslo resident Ray Wells had invited me to view it, I was unaware of the museum and wholly unprepared for the potent emotional experience that awaited me there.“I want you to see this,” Ray had emailed me a few weeks before I’d arrived in Oslo for a visit in late summer. He didn’t reveal much about Vigeland’s museum, (a mausoleum also called the Tomba Emmanuelle) except to say that it is a special place for him. He’d described it as a unique art gallery, conveniently omitting details about the true nature of the place because he assumed that it might not be a “must-see” attraction on my first trip to Norway. I’d wanted to sail down the legendary fjords, see the Viking Ships and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I wanted to experience a day in the Midnight Sun. But I sensed that showing me the museum was important to Ray, so I went along, reluctant though I was to start off my vacation with a visit to a man’s tomb, because ours is a friendship borne from death.

During our junior year in college, Ray and I experienced the loss of our close friend Ken who died suddenly and unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism. Although it happened so many years ago, I remember the day he died nearly as vividly as I remember yesterday. At 5:00 on a Monday evening the week of final exams, as I greeted him in the lobby of our building, the symptoms overwhelmed Ken and he collapsed right in front of me. I have never forgotten the look on his face as life left him, or the sound of his final gasp of breath or the stillness of his body when the end came. In less than half an hour, Ken was gone.

Afterward, I believed that our group of friends would stay together, that the bond we’d shared with Ken would help maintain our ties through college and beyond. Instead, we all went our separate ways. I transferred all the hopes and unfulfilled promise of my friendship with Ken to Ray. But after graduation, Ray moved to Norway and never looked back. I went to the East Coast and did the same. Still, over the years, I continued to hold on to the hope that I wouldn’t lose my connection to Ray no matter how far life drew us apart. He was my last connection to Ken.

I always knew that a trip to Norway would be the most personal of journeys for me. It was a chance to reconnect with Ray, get answers to questions I’d wanted to ask, turn over the choices we’d made, examine the paths we’d taken in the aftermath of Ken’s death. And yet, in our time together, we never talked about him. His death remains an unutterable thing in our friendship. Maybe the memories are too painful to resurrect. Maybe each of us feels that too much time has passed. We should be “over it” by now. We were both raised in a culture that is uncomfortable with death and mourning. We are cautioned not to dwell on the past, exhorted to get on with our lives.

Once inside the museum, Vigeland’s work substitutes for the words that fail us. Nothing I’d seen before could adequately prepare me for the sensory experience I would have here. This was Vigeland’s life work, his obsession. He spent nearly twenty-five years first converting a simple brick church into an exhibition space then transforming it into his own mausoleum modeled after ancient Etruscan burial chambers. Here is a soaring vaulted ceiling, 800 square meters of dramatic and startling frescoes that Vigeland titled Vita. On one wall he painted men and women locked in an intimate, desperate embrace, climbing, groping, procreating in the presence of divine light or beside blazing hell-fires. They express yearning and longing, anguish and ecstasy, the full range of human emotions. On another wall, Vigeland depicts the most primal of acts—the struggle to be born—with scores of infants crawling amid a sea of women floating freely upward towards the heavens or resting upon rows of skulls, the figures alternately shadowy and luminescent, all of them raw and naked. The frescoes are equal parts dazzle and disturbing; collectively they tell an epic story of man’s journey through life that is at once profound and penetrating. Vigeland’s art combines the lilting, ephemeral beauty of Botticelli and Alphonse Mucha with the raw emotion of Van Gogh and the stark honesty of Otto Dix.

Overwhelmed by the intensity of the art, a part of me wants to flee. I retreat to the solitary bench at the center of the chamber. Unable to absorb the images, I focus on the sounds. The mausoleum’s acoustics produce a natural reverb that lasts upwards of 45 seconds. Even the slightest of sounds—a whisper, the shuffling of feet, clearing my throat—transforms into a series of symphonic waves that heightens the tomb’s otherworldly quality. I distract myself briefly by trying to imagine what it would be like to hear a voice singing in the darkness of the chamber. I marvel at the skill of the artist, musing that if Vigeland’s tomb were located in Paris or Rome or London, it would garner much more attention and acclaim.

I watch Ray linger in front the frescoes. What does he see? What does he feel? Why did he bring me here? What did he want me to see? The answers, it seems, are painted on the walls. I breathe deeply and walk slowly again around the chamber, opening myself up to the world that Vigeland created, approaching each image as if it were something new. The dimly lit frescoes lure me close; the figures emerge, one by one, like specters from the ether. “No power can halt the flow of life,” Vigeland wrote in a description of his paintings.

Ray brushes past me. Ever since I arrived in Norway, my heart has felt like a cracked dam, ever on the verge of breaking. Did he think of Ken as much as I did? I needed to know. I wanted to tell him about visiting Ken’s grave, how I still stop by every once in a while to lay flowers there; how I still think of him whenever I cross San Francisco Bay and catch a glimpse of the Campanile in Berkeley; how I admonish myself because there are days, more now than ever, when I struggle to remember his face, when I have to concentrate to call up an image of his smile or the sound of his voice. I wanted Ray to know how the hurt, though less potent, less visceral, still remains.

No matter how many times you cycle through the stages of death, resolution, and acceptance, coming to terms with loss doesn’t mean forgetting. In the deepest recesses of memory live the echoes of loved ones torn too soon from the world.

I imagine myself a figure on Vigeland’s canvas, imposed on his monolithic pillar of human bodies—stretching, twisting, grasping, reaching, moving away from birth toward the inevitable. I feel every rapture, every loss, every triumph, every pain. The sounds in the mausoleum become voices from my past, urgent exhortations that expose wounds within—and my heart begins to break. But for the first time, I am grateful for the hurt, for the heartache, for wounds that never fully heal. What I begin to realize here, at the confluence of darkness, shadows, echo, and memory, is that those wounds bear witness to love and that death is merely a reminder of the life that was.
When it is time to leave, I catch a glimpse of the urn above the entrance that holds Emmanuel Vigeland’s ashes. “Let me face the sun and quietly pass away,” he wrote. Ray exits first, but not before stopping to press his hand upon my shoulder and meet my gaze. In that moment, the space between us is infused with understanding, the burden of things unsaid, the collective could have beens of our friendship with each other and with Ken.

Leaving Vigeland’s mausoleum behind, Ray and I walk beside each other and do the only thing we know how to do, the only thing each of us was meant to do.

We face the sun, and quietly, we begin again, to live.

Augusto Andres is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.