Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Illustrator: Kay Nielsen

This illustration, from Kay Nielsen's exquisite East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is one of my earliest memories. The Danish illustrator's exquisite 1914 collection of Scandinavian fairytales was one of my obsessions when I was learning to read, and the elegant prints captivated me.
Years later, I was surprised to learn that Nielsen was behind my favorite sequences in Fantasia, the "Ave Maria" and, of course, "Night on Bald Mountain".
 I don't think there's ever been anyone quite like Kay Nielsen. You might see some parallels to other Golden Age illustrators like Harry Clarke and Aubrey Beardsley - artists on the cusp of Art Nouveau. But Nielsen was a master or restraint, leaving open backgrounds of color and space which remind us of the fragility of the characters. His angular work still seems incredibly fresh.
Sadly, in spite of the huge body of work he produced in his lifetime, many of Nielsen's projects never came to fruition.
Can you imagine if Disney had produced The Little Mermaid in 1940?
Illustrators have never really been accepted by the wider art world, and Nielsen passed away in poverty. He has been remembered as little more than children's entertainment. Thanks to the internet, a wider scholarly acceptance of fairytale narratives, and a more anarchic view of what constitutes art.  Nielsen finally seems to be finding the fans he deserves. I know he will always have a place in my heart.

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