Why Oslo's Art Scene is Booming

© Courtesy Astrup Fearnley Museum

Ubiquity has turned The Scream into a whimper. Thankfully, there is much more to Oslo’s museums and galleries than its best-known painting.

You can hear The Scream before you see it. The sound that emanates from Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting and wafts down the grand stairway of Oslo’s National Gallery is not the shriek of existential dread but the murmur of tourists thronged around the picture, the best-known of the four versions the artist painted.

Shouldering past a gaggle of museum-goers takes a bit of the edge off Munch’s searing evocation of epochal angst. By all means, go and see it, but know that there are more satisfying and surprising art experiences to be had in Oslo. Some are just a few rooms away.

The highlights of the museum’s collection are the 19th-century Norwegian Romantics. You’ll likely be blissfully alone when contemplating the sublime compositions of Johan Christian Dahl and one of his disciples, Thomas Fearnley, who make the most of the country’s dramatic landscape. Fearnley, as it happens, belonged to a family of wealthy merchants and shipping magnates whose descendants founded the Astrup Fearnley Museum.

Thomas Fearnley’s The Grindelwaldgletscher (1838), at the National Museum. Jacques Lathion / Nasjonalmuseet

Its collection is an auctioneer’s fantasy, stocked with pieces by contemporary superstars like Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, and Cindy Sherman. (The biggest draw—its Scream, so to speak—is Jeff Koons’s porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimpanzee.)

But the real masterpiece is the Renzo Piano-designed building, vaulting over a narrow canal connected to the Oslo Fjord with all the curvilinear grace of a killer whale. Oslo’s homegrown art scene is arguably the most vibrant in Scandinavia. Many of its commercial galleries emerged organically from the artist-run spaces and collectives that popped up in the late ’80s and ’90s, and despite generous government support, the community retains a rebellious, fly-by-night spirit.

It is in constant flux, with galleries opening, closing down, or relocating at a rapid clip. But there are a few reliable stops, including Standard (Oslo), Galleri Riis, Galleri Brandstrup, and UKS, all of which emphasize the work of Norwegian artists such as Matias Faldbakken and the late abstract pioneer Inger Sitter.

The galleries, like much of the city, basically shut down in July, but the long summer days are ideal for exploring two sprawling sculpture parks: Both are open 24/7, and both mix moments of majesty with eerie surrealism. In Frogner Park, more than 200 bronze and granite sculptures by the early-20th-century Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland is set amid clean, Le Nôtre–style landscaping. His muscular nudes of men, women, and children are notable for their often aggressive postures and attentively rendered genitalia.

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Dilemma (2017), at Ekeberg Park. VISITOLOSO / Didrick Stenersen © Elmgreen & Dragset / BONO 2017

A very different setting can be found at Ekeberg Park, which occupies a wooded hillside south of the city center. Opened in 2013 and conceived by the local art collector Christian Ringnes, the 62-acre park places works by major (and some less major) contemporary artists like Jenny Holzer, Paul McCarthy, and Louise Bourgeois along a steep, winding forest trail, to frequently haunting effect. The best times to visit are at sunrise and sunset.

Sure, you’ll get there outside the opening hours of the ticketed James Turrell Skyspace and the very good Ekeberg restaurants, but you’re bound to have the unbeatable view of the Oslo Fjord to yourself. At the very spot said to have inspired The Scream, you’ll find a frame—a contribution by artist Marina Abramović—inviting you to step inside. Feel free to shriek into the void.