Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 29, 2010

Illustrator Profile: Kay Nielsen

One of my favorite books is East of the Sun and West of the Moon (Doubleday, 1976), in an edition illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). Even the cover has been embossed with his work, where you can see the obvious Norse/Viking themes in the curves and embellishments so typical of Art Nouveau.

These Norse folk tales (Folkeeventyr) were collected in the 19th century by P. C. Asbjørnsen and Jorgen Moe; the edition illustrated by Nielsen (1914) seems to be the most famous. Nielsen illustrated other books, including collections of tales by H. C. Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, then moved to other types of artistic work after the 1920s.

Whether working in color, or in pen-and-ink, Nielsen’s drawings rely on stylized forms and lines. His flowers couldn’t be found in any real garden, but they fit the mood of the world he was illustrating — a cold, dark, frozen land, where light and color were prized. The rose vine climbing the wall in this illustration, overhung by a willow-like tree, balances the princess setting out thimbles to protect delicate plants from frost. And note how the tree’s branches reach over from the other side of the drawing’s frame, arousing our curiosity about what might be on the other side of that wall, waiting for the princess to discover it.

This next illustration, from “The Lassie and her Godmother”, reminds me of the miniatures from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Note the tiny brush strokes used to cover the hill with grass. The birch trees rising behind the prince and the profusion of flowers on the ground signal spring and rebirth. But the sword and shield, with their elaborate Norse carvings, and the heavy braided mane and tail of the prince’s horse signal war and death.

Nielsen ended his days in Hollywood. After working briefly in films, including a stint for Disney (contributing to the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia), his final artistic creations were murals in schools and churches. During his last few years, he and his wife lived in near poverty (although it’s said they had original works by Picasso and others hanging on their walls).

For those who argue that illustrations take over what the reader’s imagination would provide unaided, I can only respond that I don’t mind having Nielsen’s illustrations in my head as I read about a young woman riding the back of a white bear or approaching the North Wind to help her find her lost love. So give me glorious art with those glorious tales — and don’t spare the colors!

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