Maquette for The People’s Princess by Poul Weile. Photograph by Susanna Forrest.

Liberating Diana

Using kitsch — and cars — to turn a royal icon into inspiration.

August 27th 2017 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and earlier this year, her sons, William, Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry, began the search for an artist to create a commemorative statue for Kensington Gardens. The successful artist will face a challenge: Diana’s image was ubiquitous in a pre-internet age. A million tabloid photographs, royal wedding mugs and printed tea towels have imprinted on public consciousness a two-dimensional assembly of recognisable parts: the swoop of blonde hair, the tiara, the upward glance through blue mascara, the long neck and patrician nose. Small wonder that neither of the official artworks that commemorate Diana is figurative. Kathryn Gustafson’s looping, shallow Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park and the plain stone with a relief of an urn near her burial place at Althrop both avoid confronting the complicated woman they celebrate. The unofficial commemorations — the Harrods memorial featuring Dodi and (inexplicably) an albatross, or the strange black granite statue erected by a stone mason in Walsall — reduce her to a static, bland icon. Both official and unofficial works have been lambasted.

Diana riding a giant toy horse.

One sculptor will be watching the announcements from Kensington Palace closely. In December 2016, a 62-year-old Danish artist Poul Weile issued a press release appealing for £430,000 in crowd funding to make The People’s Princess, his proposed six-meter-high bronze sculpture of Diana riding a giant toy horse. His work could, he suggested, occupy the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square or any other site in London, Berlin or in Paris, where mourners have turned the Flame of Liberty statue at the mouth of the Pont d’Alma tunnel into a shrine of soggy toys, old flowers and padlocks.

The press release was an unexpected hit in what Weile, more familiar with the German of his adopted home city Berlin than with English, refers to as “the Yellow Press”. British tabloids were only too delighted to present their readers with a rather unfortunate artist’s impression and an open comments section. The work is, in a first glance at the computer mock up, a bizarre stack of components: Diana sits astride the horse, arms at stiff right angles to her sides, holding a mirror and a flame and wearing a short, rucked up cocktail dress and heels. The striding horse stands in turn on a plinth made of one glass car with an upside down concrete car set upon it.

The comment sections duly filled:

“Artist? That’s like putting lipstick on a pig!” (Express)

“Its the work of a ‘piss artist’ and hopefully no one is stupid enough to pay for it.” (Express)

“NOT A PENNY OF PUBLIC MONEY MUST GO TOWARDS THIS HIDEOUS THING. It will get torn down!” (Express)

“If I was one of her lads I would take take a grinder to it and cut it to pieces, it’s a piss take.” (Express)

“I’m sure the pigeons and local drunks will get pleasure from defecating on it!” (Express)

“Is this someone’s idea of a joke? She looks like a tart.” (Express)

One comment, later removed, instructed Weile to “take the money and kill yourself”. Had the people spoken about The People’s Princess, I ask Weile when I meet him a week later in his studio in an old bakery in East Berlin. The sculptor was professorial with shades of his sailor forebears: tall, a little wild of hair, in a tweed jacket, jeans and Crocs, a pipe constantly on the go.

“I have an answer to that,” he replied, with a suck on the pipe, “The first is: who is the people? Is it the people who are these hundred persons who reacted fucking negative in these comments? Do they represent the people? The right-wing populist movements at the moment are always saying they have captured the silent majority, but most of the population doesn’t vote at all. There are always people who are against anything that is a little new. And they always say ‘We! We are the people, we hate this stuff!’” He laughed. “But most of the people, they don’t fucking care! They just walk by, and sometimes maybe they look a little up and say, ooh, what was that? Because in the basic we are just a curious species.”

“Nobody should feel stupid.”

Despite the effing, Weile is at the milder end of the post-68 generation — free-footed rather than angry, public-spirited rather than a controversialist. In his own words, he creates on behalf of the curious species: “I make art for everybody. Everybody should get something out of my work. Nobody should feel stupid.” His idiosyncratic work — better known in Sweden, Denmark and now China — frequently shows playfulness rather than scabrous morbid humour that the tabloids perhaps expected from an artist who chose to stand Diana on a rolled-over car. He worked as a farrier, carpenter and in an iron foundry before making his way to art school in Funen and studying both painting and sculpture. His gallerist calls his portfolio “no style” and it incorporates everything from large-scale bronzes to videos, found items, installations and graphic work. Much of it has a frisson of kitsch, which has become for him a way of tackling the question of what is and is not art. Weile has created an exuberant mermaid called Elle who stands on the quay at Bogense Harbour in Denmark, her arms resting on a pair of seals and her breasts flying in the sea breeze, but also a distorted, scared St Paul smashing into the ground outside an Odense church at the moment of his conversion. In 1998 he founded Prospect ART, a project that enables Danes with learning difficulties to make art not, he pointed out, because they needed to learn how to be creative, but in order to have their work taken seriously. In 2000 he was awarded the leading art prize in Funen.

His restless progress through the last five decades is visible in the bric-a-brac of maquettes, clay sculptures, stuffed animals and porcelain knick-knacks spread about us on easels, stands, shelves and a desk over which is pinned early works in “cubistic photography” — nudes scanned with a hand scanner. On my second visit, this January, he assembled the maquette of The People’s Princess for me, gingerly setting the concrete car on the glass one, fitting the pegs under the horse’s hoofs into it and adding Diana last. The maquette is more coherent and more immediately appealing than the mock-up released to the press in 2016: the bronze horse is coated with a soft, burnished nickel and the blue of Diana’s dress is more harmonious against her darker skin and the concrete.

His art historian friends have told him that the equestrian plinth statue is obsolete, but Weile wanted to harness what he sees as “a very strong archetypic language” for a fresh interpretation. He has set out to produce something new in an old form using up-to-date technology, and to replace the soldiers and kings who usually occupy those pedestals with a woman who represents a different kind of power: “There’s an equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square of a general who conquered India,” he says, “We need a strong statue for the opposite — one who helped and not one who conquered. Because we don’t need to conquer anymore, if we need to conquer, we need to conquer ourselves.” There are, his team found, just 36 public equestrian statues of women in the world, which only spurred him on: “I grew up in the sixties and I grew up with the women’s movement. In China, they said women hold up half the world. I truly believe that.”

The maquette for The People’s Princess by Poul Weile. Photograph by Susanna Forrest.

Diana was not his first choice for the project, but she was persistent. The princess materialised in his head when he was thinking of a subject, and went on popping up until he relented and began to research a woman whom he describes as rousing “a lot of mixed feelings. My old ideas about her were very superficial, that she was a superficial woman who just ran around looking beautiful and was always photographed by paparazzis. Then I found that she was a victim and also the head of 160 welfare organisations that wanted to do good.” He commends her hands-on approach to both AIDS victims and the clearance of landmines, and contrasts her action to the rhetoric of populist parties who do nothing while demanding that refugees do not receive support because “we have to look after our own”.

“She’s a symbol for what I think we need. And also a symbol of how we treat our heroes.”

For all his admiration, Weile feels no particular personal connection with Diana: “For me, she’s a symbol. It’s not some portrait of her standing looking beautiful, because for me she’s something else too. She’s a symbol for what I think we need. And also a symbol of how we treat our heroes.”

Consequently, although there’s a deliberate kitschiness to the piece, it’s not the vaseline-lensed quality that afflicts most artworks portraying Diana both before and after her death: Weile’s desire to use Diana as a symbol rather than evoke her as an individual means he’s liberated her from the stale iconography that trapped her in life. He has done this simply by following his own artistic idiom and producing an eccentric agglomeration of materials that he worried, at an earlier stage, would end up “looking like a burger”.

The blue strapless mini dress and heels are what Diana happened to be wearing in a photograph he found of her by Googling. In so far as Weile’s princess is recognisable, she’s a later period Diana, when she’d stopped hiding behind the heap of blonde hair and pushed it back behind her ears. The high, pie-crust collars are gone, the athletic shoulders bare. There’s an Amazonian quality to the strapless shift dress — albeit a superheroine, comic-strip Amazon rather than trouser-wearing Steppe warrior. The horse is a 3D scan of a tiny mould-made toy from his childhood which he showed me: designed by an unknown artist, it obsessed him then and does now. Despite its odd gait, its proportions are classical. He belatedly noticed that it echoes Marino Marini’s series of bronze horses and riders, although the People’s Princess has an optimism that the Italian sculptor’s increasingly despairing series lacked.

The original toy used to have an “Indian” rider with a round shield in one outstretched hand. In The People’s Princess, the shield is replaced by one of those convex mirrors that helps drivers in carparks see round corners. Even those standing below the statue will see themselves reflected in it. In her right, outstretched hand, where the Indian carried a spear, sits a flame which, says Weile, will appear to flicker in phone photos thanks to “pretty nerdy people” who are “working on an app”. He reels off a string of possible meanings for it, “it’s life. Belief, self-belief. Overcoming. Fighting the darkness. Fighting your own darkness.”

After months of wondering what was missing, Weile realised he needed a plinth. He’s played with the form in an earlier series of stauettes inspired by classical mythology, in which a rough, unfinished sculptures sat on immaculate and highly finished plinths. The concrete car came in a flash of inspiration, and at his girlfriend’s suggestion, he added the glass one beneath it, although it will present a considerable engineering challenge. The glue holding one of the model cars had already given out and collapsed the night before I saw it, dropping Diana and the horse on the studio floor and damaging both floor and princess. This flaw will be resolved in the completed work with steel columns that will hopefully not detract from the sculpture’s current floating, flying quality.

But when I asked Weile the obvious question his response is vague. He maintained that the cars were not a reference to the very real Mercedes in which Diana died. In Weile’s reading, they have a symbolic value that’s little to do with Diana: “The car is a very simple symbol that’s around you every day. The horse is a classical symbol thousands of years old that shows the freedom and power that you also feel behind your car’s wheel. You have power over yourself. Except that you have to hold this freedom against your obligations. Both the car and the horse brought the world together but it’s a duality. That’s why it’s a glass and a concrete car, with the fragile one carrying the whole sculpture. Like women, the most vulnerable ones, are maybe carrying it all.”

Weile’s take on feminism may or may not find favour with the Pussy Power generation, who prefer not to have what they should be doing explained to them by men — especially in a field like art where women remain underrepresented. He questions the value of women pushing elbow-first into male arenas: “A lot of the women’s movement was about getting women into the top posts which is good, but I think we need to change the game. If women are just playing the male’s game, what’s the difference between having a man or a woman in those top posts? I think we have to find more of what we can call feminine values — more compassion. Not only women, but men too. We have to have more compassion and more inclusions, more about trying to take care of what we have. And that is traditionally called the female values, and you can express that with a female statue, I think.”

She is labelled a “whore”, a “tart” and an attention seeker.

But Weile has opened a bigger can of worms than he can ever have realised. The comment threads labelling Weile’s work “a disgrace” and “monstrosity” were also full of attacks on Diana herself, as were those trailing reports of Harry and William’s project. She is labelled a “whore”, a “tart” and an attention seeker. To Weile, the complaints about him depicting Diana in a cocktail dress are part and parcel of the sexism swirling around her and other women in the public eye — the blue cocktail dress is something she chose to wear and does not mean she was “accessible” to men. The sculpture itself invokes the old Scandinavian punishment of placing rebels and offenders on a “wooden horse” in a public square to be pilloried. Weile argues that Diana weaponised the abuse, the attention and the frocks in the service of others: “She was using it for a higher cause. The problems in society of homelessness, of HIV, everything, she put herself out there and used her expression as an artist for these causes.”

Art should start a social discussion, Weile told me, and so he hopes — perhaps optimistically — our “curious species” will look up into Diana’s mirror and wonder why we think that dress looks cheap, or what she’d do if she lived in our reality of refugees, nationalism and austerity. “My countryman Hans Christian Anderson is one of my biggest idols, because he can speak to everybody. He can speak to children, he speaks to old people — I still read his stories. And every time I do I get a new interpretation, because his stories grow with you. That’s what I want to do — talk to everybody. Art shouldn’t tell you what to think, that’s just propaganda.” That’s why he wants The People’s Princess to be shown in a public place, “It’s not there to offend anyone but to grow with people and help them grow inside themselves. That’s what I’m hoping to do every time I do a big piece.”

“Art shouldn’t tell you what to think, that’s just propaganda.”

He’s made some somewhat nervous videos for the art piece’s Facebook page to address the criticisms of the tabloid commenters. He is anxious to see the full-scale finished piece, having mulled it for years: “I really have to be careful, I’m always careful when I do sculptures, because I know people have to look at them. I force people to look at my work. If I put them in a museum or something, they take a choice to go in. But when you put them in public space, you force your thoughts on people. For me, I really want to be very sure that I did my very, very, very best.”