If you’ve seen Fantasia, you are, whether you know it or not, familiar with the work of Kay Nielsen, a Danish artist whose illustrations collide light and dark in sublime, often disquieting quantities, with patterns of feverish detail abutting vast stretches of negative space. His work was used in Fantasia’s “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences, but his stint at Disney came late in his career. It’s worth, instead, seeking out his work as a book illustrator, especially 1914’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which Taschen has just reissued in a lavish new edition.
East of the Sun comprises fifteen stoical and weirdly moving Norwegian folktales, boasting names like “Prince Lindworm,” and “The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body.” The stories came hard-won from the folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, who had spent years in the mid-nineteenth century journeying across the fjords to remote fishing, farming, and mining villages to transcribe the local lore. A cast of trolls, ogres, and witches roots the stories clearly in Norse pagan mythology, but what makes them distinctly Scandinavian, Taschen’s editor Noel Daniel told me, is the outsized, often personified role of the natural world: the North Wind is a character, brawny and menacing, and nature itself is a character, alternately gloomy and glowing. After a four-hundred-year sleep in which Norway had been subjugated to Denmark, tales from the vernacular like these helped to form the country’s national identity. As the art historian Colin White writes in an introduction to the new edition, “Snow, ice, and brittleness determined the character of these northern legends. The clash of sword blades echoed the crack of ice. The crunch of frozen ground was all the more sinister when it was made with an armored foot or a heavily shod battle charger.”
In 1914, the London publishing house Hodder & Stoughton decided to release a lavish, gift-book edition of the tales under the title East of the Sun and West of the Moon; they tapped Nielsen—a Dane, ironically, though by then no one seems to have minded much—to contribute illustrations. He contributed a series of watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings that are arguably his finest work. “The contrast between the seemingly endless winter and the suddenness of spring was the world of Nielsen’s upbringing,” White writes, “and he remembered it in his illustrations … The breadth of Nielsen’s invention can be seen in the many incidental touches.” His drawings are for the most part flat; their depth comes from their dusky, warm colors and patterns. And his figures are almost stereotypically Nordic: pale and idealized, somewhat androgynous.
“Nielsen was attracted to tales of formation, to people striking out on their own—there’s lot of that in this book,” Daniel told me. The work he contributed to East of the Sun found him a wide, appreciative new readership. “In the 1910s and 20s, printing technology was exploding,” Daniel said. “Publishers were invested in representing the artwork: they really wanted to show how great it was. There was a huge diversity in illustration at the time. You had all these artists thriving particularly in European cities, coming out of these art academies, and finally they had a place to show their work to a large audience.”
These artists didn’t make money on their books; they made money on the art shows that accompanied the launch of the book, where they sold all the originals. Of course, that disperses them to different people, which made Daniel’s task a difficult one; she had to track down Nielsen’s originals from private collectors. She was able to find eleven of them, all told.
Like Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley, Nielsen was well-suited for gift-book illustration; in 1939, though, when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in film, his fortunes began to turn. Daniel explained:
Artistically speaking, he had a hard time following the drum of the studio. You had certain deadlines, you had certain volume you had to produce, you had a lot of other cooks in the kitchen. And that wasn’t a natural fit for someone like him. It didn’t match the way in which he interprets a story. There’s a lightness and a darkness, a sense of community and a sense of apartness, of isolation, in his illustrations. His sensitivity to that, I’m convinced, came from personal experience. He had these artistic abilities that allowed him to be in conversation with an artistic community—publishers, gallerists, other artists, institutions—but he was also apart from them. He was a very solitary, complex man, and ultimately, as we know from his biography, he did not end life in a very happy place.
After Disney laid him off in 1941, Nielsen lived out his remaining years as a chicken farmer; he turned his artistic efforts to murals. “He died in poverty,” Daniel told me, He had a partner in his wife, but that was basically it. And several attempts to revive his artistic career failed. He knew loneliness. But the work shows his ability to retract and focus entirely on his project, on his vision—that extreme concentration of the line. Nielsen was a man who was able to shut the world out.”
You can see more of Nielsen’s work below, and here.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.