The Abel Monument

The economic growth Norway enjoyed at the beginning of the twentieth century speeded up old and new plans to erect memorials to famous personages.

In collaboration with the University Senate a committee of artists had approved the placement of a standing or seated portrait statue of Abel next to the steps outside the University’s central building. In connection with the centenary in 1902 a competition was announced on 26 April, with the delivery date set at 1 October the same year. A photograph of the only portrait of Abel, done by Johan Gørbitz in 1826, was sent to all participants.

Already in the 1890s, Gustav Vigeland had drawn the preliminary sketches of an Abel Monument, where Abel is portrayed as a “man in an overcoat”. At around the turn of the century Vigeland rejected the earlier sketches in favour of a symbolic portrayal of the genius in the form of a nude young man sailing through space.

Vigeland did no fewer than nine studies in clay, several of which were in traditional standing or seated poses. But in the first and last study he repeated the idea from the sketches of a nude man, in the last study held up by two other male figures. Vigeland sought to portray the thinking and imagination of the genius.

In all, nineteen studies for the monument were submitted. All the studies submitted were exhibited in a hall in the Historical Museum building. The decision of the jury came down on 23 October. Vigeland’s study was found to have the highest artistic merit, but was deemed ineligible because it did not conform to the competition rules. Ingebrigt Vik won the competition, with Aagot Vangen in second place and Valentin Kielland in third. However, none of the studies was recommended for erection.

Vigeland

Vigeland wrote a long letter to the committee giving his reasons for deviating from the rules and proposed erecting the monument elsewhere: “And then I hit upon the original idea Abel symbolized. While working on the study of this group of figures, I imagined it placed where Schweigaard now stands.”

Vigeland then launched an intensive campaign to lobby for his monument. To Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who had written the lyrics to the Abel Cantata, he wrote: “I must say that I would be sorry not to get the commission for this monument. After all, I have had more stipends than other artists; I have been sent abroad repeatedly - and then damn it all, they don’t want my work, when it’s the best I have ever done. And so now I turn to you, Bjørnson. You will be able to speak with authority to the chairman of the Abel Monument Committee, Professor Gustav Storm. And I am certain that it will have an effect.”

Bjørnson heeded Vigeland’s request and wrote immediately to Professor Storm, reproducing in his own words Vigeland’s arguments about the impossibility of creating a portrait figure without usable documentation. Bjørnson also wrote a piece in favour of Vigeland’s monument in the 3 March 1903 edition of Aftenposten.

The most scathing criticism of the monument came from the painter Christian Krogh. In Verdens Gang on 26 March 1903 he offered a sarcastic analysis of the study including: “If anything, the group of figures gives the impression of a circus jockey astride two horses.” This earned Vigeland’s undying enmity, and Vigeland savaged Krogh on several occasions, both as a person and as an artist.

Owing to the prevailing uncertainty surrounding the monument, in January 1903 Ingebrigt Vik started on a life-size version of his statue. Lest he lose the competition, Vigeland did likewise in April of the same year. He was in dire financial straits and could not even afford clay. For that reason he cannibalized a number of clay works, including a contemporary self portrait, and used the clay for the new monument.

Vigeland

It is doubtful that Vigeland would have had the financial means to complete the monument, if he had not received support from Sweden. The Swedish art enthusiast Gelly Marcus was a fervent admirer of Vigeland’s work. In 1904 she got a prosperous relative, the Swedish wholesaler Hjalmar Josephson, to commission the Abel Monument in bronze. Josephson made a gift of the sculpture to the National Museum in Stockholm, where it arrived in July 1904. As this event received a lot of press in Sweden, it garnered at lot of attention in Norway. In Aftenpostena newspaper reader wrote: “And the day may come when the disgrace befalls us that Vigeland’s Abel Monument has been erected in every other country than this one, where it rightly belongs.” It had now become a matter of national prestige.

Gelly Marcus ensured the sale of yet another replica in bronze to the well-to-do businessman G. A. Hagemann in Copenhagen, which was given to the student union of the Technical University of Denmark and it now stands on the university campus.

Another Swede was crucial for the subsequent fate of the monument and thus of Vigeland. The financier and art collector Ernest Thiel had heard about Vigeland through his friend the playwright Gunnar Heiberg. He had also learnt of Vigeland’s works and money troubles from Josephson, who had visited Vigeland’s studio. Thiel thought he might be interested in one of the works and in a letter inquired about Vigeland’s real and immediate needs for funding, which could be considered a down payment on a future purchase. Immediately afterward Thiel sent 2,000 kroner to Vigeland.

The most heated discussion regarding the Abel Monument concerned its location. In March 1904 Vigeland proposed placing the monument at the western end of Karl Johans gate. The jury then called on Vigeland to do a study of a pedestal. On 2 November Vigeland wrote to the monument committee and offered them the group of figures cast in bronze for 50,000 kroner excluding the pedestal and installation.

On 31 January 1905 the monument committee met anew and voted unanimously to commission the group of figures. However, the amount available was only 25,000 kroner, so another fund-raising effort was necessary. Aftenposten’s owner, Amandus Schibsted, led the effort and on 14 November 1906 was able to wire Wexelsen the chairman that his task was completed: “With the help of subscriptions for contributions from citizens to the Abel Monument, my promise to you and Consul Heiberg has now been fulfilled. The last 5,000 was subscribed for by Stang of Fredrikshald.”

The statue’s final location had not yet been determined, but in 1907 there was agreement to erect the monument in the south-east corner of Slottsparken (the palace grounds), since then called Abelhaugen.

Vigeland

On 17 October 1908 Vigeland’s Abel Monument, atop an eight-metre-high granite pedestal, was unveiled: Total height is 12.10 metres. Vigeland was not present, as he had quietly left the country to travel.

In 1905 Professor Dietrichson 1905 asked Vigeland to give a more detailed account of what his intention had been with the Abel Monument. Vigeland’s initial reply was: “I don’t know.” But fearing what the public might think about an artist who did not know what he was doing, he immediately asked Dietrichson not to quote him directly on this. The Abel Monument, wrote Vigeland, was not conceived with any particular “force” or “power” in mind. “Rather, I was thinking of the intuitive launch of genius into space.”

Gustav Vigeland would later propose moving the Abel Monument to Nisseberget to make room for his monumental fountain. Nothing ever came of this, and the fountain was later erected in Vigeland Park.

Vik

Not until 1966-69 were bronze casts made of Ingebrigt Vik’s winning study, two of them, in fact: one now on display in the Vik Museum in Øystese, and the other outside Nils Henrik Abels hus on the Blindern campus of the University of Oslo.

Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi
Drammensveien 78
N-0271 Oslo
Telefon: +47 22 84 15 00
Telefaks: +47 22 12 10 99
E-post: abelprisen@dnva.no
 
Nettredaktør: Anne-Marie Astad
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The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
Drammensveien 78
N-0271 Oslo, Norway
Telephone: + 47 22 84 15 00
Fax: + 47 22 12 10 99
E-mail: abelprisen@dnva.no
Web editor: Anne-Marie Astad
Design and technical solutions: Ravn Webveveriet AS