Back in the days when we were both active members of the now-defunct website VirtualTourist, my friend Albert from Canberra, Australia, sent me a message pointing out that my Frankfurt am Main page, which at that time consisted of 98 tips/reviews and several travelogues, did not include any mention of the Fairy Tale Fountain.
He had noticed this because on his visit to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, he was given a tour of the Mansudae Art Studio, a huge operation which produces all the millions of statues and paintings of the country’s first two “leaders” Kim Il-sung (1912-1994, now officially known as the Eternal President of the Republic) and his son Kim Jong-il (1941-2011).
In addition to great masses of official artwork portraying the Kim dynasty of North Korea, the Mansudae Art Studio also produces statues for clients in other countries. As Albert explained, “there is now a worldwide shortage of socialist realist artists” following the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, “so up and coming Africa dictators and others have turned to North Korea for their statues and such like. This work has become quite a lucrative source of foreign exchange for North Korea.”
He said that this overseas work included statues and monuments in Botswana, Senegal, Namibia, Benin, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And then came the Frankfurt connection: “On a more modest scale the current incarnation of the Fairy Tale Fountain in Frankfurt am Main, Germany was (rather controversially, in Germany) produced by the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.”
After writing his review on the Mansudae Art Studio, Albert sent me the link and added: “Would have linked to your page but can’t see a related tip/review there!”
I wrote back: “LOL. I ride past the Fairy Tale Fountain every time I go to the opera here in Frankfurt, because it is on the same square as the new opera house, right next to the bicycle stands by the stage entrance, but I was unaware that it was made in North Korea and never thought to do a tip about it.”
The next time I rode to the opera house the sun was shining, so I took some photos (including the first four photos on this post), and subsequently did some research on the Fairy Tale Fountain.
It took me only a few clicks to find an article from Bloomberg Business Week which told the whole story. The article explained that the Fairy Tale Fountain was “an art nouveau relic from 1910 that had been melted down for its metal during World War II.” Since no blueprints of the original fountain could be found, the city of Frankfurt “needed sculptors who could work from old photographs to re-create the naked beauty gazing down on an array of cherubic children and enormous water-spewing reptiles and fish.”
For this task, Frankfurt chose the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang. The deputy director of Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Art, Klaus Klemp, explained: “It was a purely technical decision. The top tier artists in Germany simply don’t make realist work anymore. North Koreans on the other hand haven’t experienced the long evolution of modern art; they are kind of stuck in the early 1900s, which is exactly when this fountain was made.”
In November 2005, two German officials flew to Pyongyang to check on the progress of the sculpture. According to the Bloomberg article, the “quality of the work was impeccable, but the Germans did have one complaint: Their art nouveau fountain had been rendered with a slightly hard, angular communist touch.” One of the Germans was quoted as saying that the woman on the statue had kind of a cement block hairdo. “We explained to the head sculptor that the socialist realist style wasn’t really in vogue in Frankfurt at the moment. He was very receptive and softened the look accordingly.”
The white statue at the top of the fountain is the part that was made at the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang. The metal construction off to the left is the stage tower of the Frankfurt Opera.
In this corner of the fountain, a boy seems to be torturing a fish, which is squirting out streams of water. This part of the fountain was not made in Pyongyang. It seems to be much older, perhaps even a surviving part of the original fountain from 1910.
Here is a view of the Fairy Tale Fountain from behind, with a corner of the Frankfurt Opera and some skyscrapers in the background.
Although VirtualTourist no longer exists, you can still read Albert’s informative and entertaining reviews, including the one on the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, on his website The Rambling Wombat.
A few days before hearing from Albert, I took this photo of another VirtualTourist member, a Vietnamese graduate student who went by the name of Emily2410 on VT, with the Fairy Tale Fountain more or less accidentally in the background.
Actually we should have taken a closer look at it, because the lady at the top of the fountain is supposed to be a water nymph, and by coincidence we were on our way to see an opera about a water nymph, namely Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák.
This was Emily’s first opera, by the way. After the performance we went around to the stage entrance so I could introduce her to some of the singers.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Rusalka in Antwerp.