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Art

Body Issues: The Spectacular Artworks Made to Immortalize Our Bodies

Detail of Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

Detail of Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

A few years ago, when I was feeling particularly low, one of the darkest artworks I’ve ever encountered gave me a moment of respite. Nothing terrible had happened to me—just a breakup—but I was worried that I was rapidly slipping into insanity. I felt much worse then than I do now, in the midst of a global pandemic. Funny how the mind works.
This salutary art-viewing experience occurred in a painted mausoleum so dimly lit that when I first walked in, I couldn’t see anything at all. In recent weeks, as the media has broadcast news of makeshift morgues and mandatory cremations, I’ve thought a lot about the spectacular structures that have historically housed the dead and marked their graves. Will we eventually find a way to memorialize the massive quantities of bodies that belong to the recently deceased? Indulging in such morbid thoughts has, surprisingly, proven calming. Considering preservation, memory, and loss through the lens of art can make even the worst-case scenario seem less frightening.
Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of  Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum, which is located in the Slemdal neighborhood of Oslo. I was spending a few summer days in the city, after a press trip to a nearby biennial. Either my Airbnb host told me about it, or I read about it online, or someone on the press trip had made the recommendation. In any case, I arrived via tram to a brick building with a low stone entryway.
Inside, my eyes eventually adjusted to the pitch black, revealing a continuous, floor-to-ceiling painting that commingled themes of sex and death. In one section, two skeletons copulate in a white cloud, surrounded by nude, intertwined bodies. Throughout the work, male and female figures embrace in such intricate tangles that it’s difficult to tell where one body begins and the next ends. Yet it’s hardly a happy orgy; anguished facial expressions are more prevalent than those of ecstasy. As the mausoleum’s website states, “Lovemaking and procreation in the honour of God takes place in front of a dark and infinite universe, dimly lit by the life-giving, divine sun but also by the blazing fires of hell.” If that wasn’t exactly how I felt about my relationship with my ex! In the cool, dark mausoleum, surrounded by such a bold, melodramatic display of sexual angst, I felt a sense of tranquility and funny recognition.
Detail of Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of  Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

Detail of Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

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Emanuel Vigeland painted the 800-square-meter fresco, titled Vita, or “Life,” in the 1920s. The Norwegian artist—and brother to the more famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland—initially intended for the building to become a museum. Yet in the 1940s, he changed his mind, filled the windows with brick, and began preparing the space to become an exuberantly painted mausoleum. A hollowed stone urn of his ashes still rests at the entrance.
Kjartan Hauglid, the site’s curator, noted that while Vigeland received help from his eldest son, Per Vigeland, he “worked largely alone.” There are no “quick answers” to describe why the artist was so obsessed with dark, erotic themes, Hauglid said. Yet Vigeland’s religious upbringing and violent father—whose sexual escapades resulted in a child from an extramarital affair—probably contributed. Even in old age, Vigeland remembered “the horrors the preacher threatened his audience with if they did not lead a righteous life: they would be doomed to the eternal fires of hell,” wrote Maj-Brit Wadell in a 1996 essay.
Visiting the mausoleum wasn’t my first or last journey to extravagant burial grounds: Over the years, I’ve made a series of pilgrimages to see skillfully crafted markers of death. In Paris, I submerged into the bone- and skull-lined catacombs. I took the metro out to Père Lachaise to see Oscar Wilde’s kiss-covered tomb, from which a naked stone angel emerges. In Buenos Aires, I looked out my cab window to glimpse Eva Perón’s resting spot in La Recoleta Cemetery. This past summer, I meandered around Brooklyn’s famous Green-Wood Cemetery, spotting headstones for ; the actor Frank Morgan, who most famously played the Wizard of Oz in the eponymous film; and the monumental mausoleum for William Steinway, of the major piano-making family.
Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of  Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

Emanuel Vigeland, Vita, 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

Curious about this age-old desire to create extraordinary art and architecture in the face of death, I recently spoke to a scholar who studies the culture most famous for the practice: the ancient Egyptians. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator in charge of the department of Egyptian art, Diana Craig Patch, told me it’s important to remember that the pyramids and the priceless artifacts within them weren’t made to “commemorate” the dead—instead, they were all intended to give the “dead” a happy afterlife. “The purpose of the tomb, besides a place to house a body, was to protect that body for eternity,” said Patch. “For the Egyptians, living forever was the goal.”
Towards this end, the Egyptians buried precious objects, food, and clothing with them—anything that would give them comfort and joy in their next adventure. On stelae, or stone markers, they indicated their requests to the gods: They carved out the name of the deceased, asking for eternal sustenance from the higher power. Such language could appear on tomb walls, jars of food, and the coffins as well. According to Patch, the Egyptians wanted to ensure that their pleas weren’t missed. The stelae themselves may be the earliest predecessors of the tombstones that have developed throughout Western civilization.
One of Patch’s favorite funerary objects from the Met’s Egyptian collection is a statuette of a woman carrying a basket of food on her head. Though she looks like a servant, Patch said that she probably represents a deity. “Her body is so graceful,” said the curator. “The decoration of her beaded gown is perfect and it has lasted 4,000 years.”
Unknown, Estate Figure, 1981–1975 B.C.. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown, Estate Figure, 1981–1975 B.C.. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail of Emanuel Vigeland, Vita , 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of  Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

Detail of Emanuel Vigeland, Vita , 1920s. © Emanuel Vigeland Museum. Photo by Kjartan Hauglid. Courtesy of Emanuel Vigeland Museum.

The beautiful sculpture was most likely made and then buried, without ever going on view to the public. “The Egyptians do not have a word for art,” said Patch. Everything was “functional,” even if today, that function has a strong whiff of magic.
In modern times, it’s rare for someone to begin commissioning such significant work on their own burial place while they’re still alive. The task, I think, must force tomb-planners to reckon with their mortality in a new way—no matter what their conception of death and the afterlife. Vigeland seems to have fully embraced the task, making something striking and totally singular in the process. His strange spirit lives on in his unforgettable mausoleum, even if his body has been reduced to ashes.
Alina Cohen