Horse of a different colour as locals contribute to public art

Freiburg, Germany  - An equine statue has become a cult figure in the south-western German city of Freiburg and beyond, as a public canvas for talented artists and those of more modest pretensions.

The flanks of this cantering horse, called Holbein, are always coated in paint but the birthday greetings or confessions of undying love regularly give way to a new outfit or embellishments. Holbein can be seen variously in virginal white or wearing the stripes of somebody's favourite football team.

Locals armed with cans of spray paint simply decide when the time has come for a cosmetic makeover since this pony is a genuine piece of popular art. The identity of the artists is often not known but in any event police turn a blind eye to what is going on and no-one need fear being charged with vandalism or criminal damage.

The elegant horse is actually more of a foal and it stands on a plinth in Holbein suburb at a point where the road which bears its name converges with Schauinslandstrasse, a road leading to the picturesque Black Forest hills.

Holbein's chameleon career began in the 1980s when he was kitted out as a unicorn in white or transformed into an elephant with large flappy ears. This was followed by a one-piece bathing costume or football regalia such as the jersey once worn by former Germany squad player Christian Ziege. Holbein has been wrapped up Christo-style and was once covered in planks to resemble the wooden horse so intelligently deployed by the Trojans.

Holbein was first unveiled in 1936 by sculptor Werner Guertner and taken under the wing of the local parks and gardens department four years later. The public attention for his work was a constant source of amusement to Guertner, as his son Martin recalled. "He had a great sense of humour and was not in the least upset by it."

For many years volunteers from a local senior citizens' association painstakingly removed the then unwanted decorations and restored Holbein to his former glory. In 1987, when a motorist crashed into the statue, the city of Freiburg even paid for complete refurbishment. The thick coats of paint were still being removed ten years later but artistic licence has since gained the upper hand.

Holbein has even spawned a postcard collection, a book and his own internet home page. In 1996 he was the subject of a court case which centred on a row over who was entitled to the proceeds of photographs which document his coats of many colours. The ruling stipulated that anyone may take photographs of a public sculpture provided he or she was not involved in the transformation. While awaiting the legal ruling Holbein sported a coat of distinctive prison stripes and later a legal gown.

Local police take a very liberal view of the artistic goings on: "Holbein is a cultural object and anyone with artistic talent is allowed to alter its appearance," said police spokesman Karl-Heinz Schmid. "The city does not prosecute anyone and regards the horse as a kind of mural," said a spokesman.

The statue has chronicled many changes down the years, including the controversial privatisation of local apartment blocks, conflict in the Middle East and the sinking of the Brent Spar oil platform. The vanishing ozone layer, the Tour de France cycle race and nuclear tests have all featured at one time or another. Sometimes Holbein has become an unwitting hoarding for product advertising.

The greatest accumulation of paint is to be found around the substantial midriff of the elegant horse, whose legs and neck have also thickened considerably. "It's looking more lumpen than statue-like," lamented Thomas Weis of Freiburg's garden department. At the moment though public funds will not run to a thorough clean-up.

What annoys local folk the most is the lack of original ideas exhibited by many who lay hands on Holbein. It used to be an unwritten law that anyone who lacquered the horse would do so in a creative and stimulating way. For some years now Holbein has been a backdrop for scribbled birthdays and anniversaries. "This just goes to show that people in Freiburg are pretty uninspired at the moment," said Matthias Wolpert, who markets photographs of the stone horse. (dpa)