In this excerpt from the commentary, Marina Warner reflects on the theatrical and eclectic style of Kay Nielsen, and the fairy tales that inspired him:
‘Kay Nielsen was born in 1886 into the heart of the theatre world: his mother Oda Larssen was a famous performer and his father, who started life as a classical actor, became director of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. Their son would continue to work for the stage – and later for the screen – throughout his life, and this interest tells in his illustrations, often tableaux taking place against flats as in painted scenery and elaborately framed as if unfolding in the box-within-a-box of a proscenium stage, while his characters wear lavishly embroidered and trimmed costumes and strike dramatic, even histrionic poses under broiling skies in raking shafts of light. Kay Nielsen’s first suite of art works, The Book of Death (1911), represented an explicit homage to Aubrey Beardsley, with a tale of a Pierrot’s doomed passion. Two years later, in 1913, at the age of twenty-six, Nielsen had his first major success when he exhibited at the Leicester Galleries a series of fairy-tale watercolours called In Powder and Crinoline, compiled from tales by Charles Perrault, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy et al. and retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Ukiyo-e prints – by Hokusai and Utamaro – had now supplanted Beardsley in Nielsen’s imagination, and he flattened the depth of the image, tilted the ground towards the plane of the paper, used overlapping luscious blocks of colour, angled and elongated his figures, and generally gave free rein to his taste for ornament, masquerade, and variations on rococo and arcadia.
‘In Powder and Crinoline, which was bound in green vellum and issued in five hundred collectors’ copies, made the young Dane’s reputation, and after its sell-out success the Galleries offered Nielsen another show. For this, the following year, Nielsen turned to the legends of his own country and its neighbours, and revisited the Nordic myths collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe from 1841 onwards, as well as a few more, translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent and included in his Tales from the Norse (1859); the result, illustrating Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen’s retellings, was East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
‘The show and the book again sold out, in spite of the war, but this was 1914 and, as the fighting raged on, Nielsen wasn’t able to continue working in London; after a visit to America, he returned home to Copenhagen. There, among other things, he designed a production of Aladdin in the remarkable verse drama by Adam Oehlenschläger – a work which really needs to be revisited by an inspired impresario today. But the twenties saw Nielsen back in London for a book of Andersen stories in 1924 and, the following year, Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm appeared.
‘The translator and the selection aren’t identified, but some of the stories appear to be taken directly from Edgar Taylor’s German Popular Tales (1823), and others from an anthology, published in 1853, called Household Stories, which was anonymously translated, with illustrations by E. H. Wehnert, a minor Pre-Raphaelite, now forgotten. The choice includes some of the Grimms’ most brilliant and loved fairy tales: ‘Snowdrop’ and ‘Catskin’ (more usually called ‘Snow White’ and ‘All-Fur’) and ‘Rapunzel’. This Victorian compiler also picked out several much less well-known tales, tangled weaves of familiar motifs in unfamiliar combinations (‘The Two Brothers’; ‘Roland’). Some of these tales communicate tough downhome wisdom, anticipating Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales rather than promising happily-ever-after romance. The husband of ‘Clever Alice’ (more usually called Else) bells her like a cat and leaves her to wander, rejected by all. Nielsen has tied the bells to the tips of her flowing hair as she runs haplessly through the world.
‘While Kay Nielsen’s images haven’t dated as responses to the stories, they bear the imprint of the aesthetic of their times in interesting ways, and the dreams of enchantment they offer are couched in the fashionable visual language of the twenties – transformations of art nouveau, le ‘modern style’ and le style Liberty of the fin de siècle as streamlined art deco began taking over.
‘However, like all the most memorable illustrations for fairy tales, Nielsen’s aren’t confined by the times when they were made. He embraces an exuberant range of techniques from arts and crafts, eastern and western, southern and northern, and stylises the flora and fauna, forests and glens of the tales’ settings. The stories offer the redress of the imagination, unfurling imaginary horizons where justice will prevail. Similarly, even when the illustrations depict a scene of sorrow or terror, the images are so highly wrought, so close to artificial paradises that the costs of the circumstances they depict do not weigh heavily on the viewer/ reader. The forest in the illustration to ‘Hansel and Gretel’ looms high over the gleaming gingerbread and caramel cottage, its entangled branches closing in, leaving no line of escape. Yet, compared to Rackham’s animist trees with their hooked, grabbing twiggy fingers and grimacing trunks, Nielsen’s are gentle giants. A sense of vulnerability suffuses the scene, with the two small figures holding hands as the golden-bright cottage lures them on: sympathy, not menace, is the note Nielsen strikes.
‘When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Kay Nielsen left again for California. A friend had secured him a job at Walt Disney’s studios, where he became part of the émigré talent that Hollywood recognised – and, more often than not, frustrated and wasted. Nielsen’s vision at its most sombre can be seen in the spooky ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ in Disney’s ambitious animation Fantasia (1940). But the studio did not value him, and in 1941 he was let go. He struggled on, surviving by painting murals in churches and schools in Los Angeles, but died in poverty in 1957.
‘The fairy tales that inspired him often recognise the unfair harshness of life, and highlight what a crucial role luck and timing play in destiny; Kay Nielsen’s intense, preternaturally beautiful heroes and heroines convey the sharp tooth of the winter wind and the frail paper dresses that stories wrap around us for protection.’