Fabled ‘Little Mermaid’ survives a barage of attacks
An Irishman’s Diary: Looking out to sea for 100 years
“ ‘The Little Mermaid’ was placed in its current location in 1913, and apart from having been the main attraction at the Danish pavilion at the World Fair in 2010 in Shanghai, there it has always remained. Well, almost . . .” Photograph: Getty Images
The world’s most popular mermaid is 100 years old on August 23rd. She sits on a rock in the water near Langelinie Pier in Copenhagen staring out to sea with a melancholic expression. Copenhagen’s most famous tourist attraction, “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most popular public monuments in the world.
Its origin lies in one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most well-loved fairytales of the same name, telling the story of a mermaid who saves the life of a shipwrecked prince and embarks on a perilous quest to win his love. This involves her visiting a witch and agreeing to give up her tongue in exchange for legs, which will take the place of her fish tail so that she can live on land and pursue her love.
She is now mute and every step she takes on her new legs is as painful as if she were walking on swords. Her dreams and sacrifices come to nothing because she cannot wed the prince. And she cannot return to live in the sea.
No wonder her expression is so full of sad wistful longing as she looks out over the water and reminisces on her childhood and lost life in the sea.
How did the main character of the poignant fairytale become a public statue? In 1909, Carl Jacobsen (of Carlsberg Breweries) saw prima ballerina Ellen Price dance the role in Fini Henriques’ ballet, based on the fairytale, at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He was so entranced by her performance that he asked her to pose for a statue of the protagonist of Andersen’s fairytale.
She agreed, but was not willing to pose nude when she learned that Jacobsen planned to give the resulting statue to the city of Copenhagen for public display. She modelled for the head. Jacobsen employed sculptor Edvard Erichsen to do the work and his wife posed for the body of the mermaid.
Erichsen sculpted in bronze and kept in mind that the mermaid of the story was called “little”. The sculpture is just over four feet (1.25 metres) high and weighs 27 stone (175 kilograms). It may not be very imposing but it has an elegance and grace that more than compensate.
It was placed in its current location in 1913, and apart from having been the main attraction at the Danish pavilion at the World Fair in 2010 in Shanghai, there it has always remained. Well, almost . . .
The statue was the target of vandals – for various reasons – on a number of occasions from the 1960s. However, on each occasion the damage has been repaired.
One form of vandalism, perhaps relatively innocuous in comparison to others, has been the pouring of paint over the mermaid, which started as early as 1963 and occurred most recently twice in 2007. A naughty twist was added to the paint splattering on March 8th, 2006 when, in addition, a dildo was fixed to one of the hands and “March 8” written on the statue. It was surmised that this protest was connected with International Women’s Day, which occurs annually on that date.
In 2004, she was draped in a burka, apparently to express opposition to Turkey joining the European Union. Three years later Muslim attire again covered her, though why specifically then is not clear.
A rather more serious form of vandalism has been dismemberment. In April 1964, the statue’s head was sawn off and stolen, an action linked to the Situationists, a movement of politically radical artists, some of whom were Danish. The head was never recovered and a new one replaced it. The mermaid was again decapitated in early 1998 (a number of similar attempts having been made in the intervening years). Although the perpetrators were never found, the head was returned anonymously to a local TV station and was reattached.
The Little Mermaid went for an unexpected swim in September 2003 when it was blown off its base with explosives and afterwards retrieved from the harbour waters. No motive was ascribed for this vandalism but perhaps, as in the case of many of the others, it was done for a dare or to win a bet.
Indeed, it has been claimed that the statue on public display is merely a copy and that the sculptor’s heirs are keeping the original at a secret location. It is under copyright until 2029 (70 years after the sculptor’s death) and there have been a number of legal actions over copies.
However, this has not deterred the copiers.