Let’s talk about Kay Nielsen

Thursday evenings, my significant otter is engaged in on-line training with his football team, which means that I get to spend an evening of drinking and compulsive on-line shopping in the background of his camera. I wanted this book for ages and this Thanksgiving I finally got it. It’s the Taschen scrumptious edition of a collection […]

Thursday evenings, my significant otter is engaged in on-line training with his football team, which means that I get to spend an evening of drinking and compulsive on-line shopping in the background of his camera. I wanted this book for ages and this Thanksgiving I finally got it.

It’s the Taschen scrumptious edition of a collection of 10 Norse folk tales, illustrated by Danish master Kay Nielsen and including watercolors from the first edition and a couple of essays.

First published in 1914, East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a celebrated collection of fairy tales gathered by legendary Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe on their journeys across Norway in the mid-19th century. Nielsen’s illustration edition of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s tales is considered a jewel of early 20th-century children’s literature, highly sought-after by art and book collectors worldwide. An original signed copy of the book sold at auction in 2008 commanded the highest price ever paid for an illustrated children’s book.

I was going to write a small piece about the artist, about the legends, about the essays in the book. It turned out to be a huge piece and I had to cut it into parts. Today you’ll get the first part, about Kay Nielsen. You’ll get the rest when I’ll get around to finishing them. I have a huge amount of stuff already scheduled for December. We’ll see.

1. The illustrator

1.1. Wanna bet you know him?

I love Kay Nielsen and you do too. And you surely know at least one work he was responsible for. Yes, because he authored the drawings behind the Night on the Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequences in Fantasia. Yeah, I’m talking about the cartoon.

It’s the final piece of Fantasia and is a medley between Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, placed there to counterbalance the celebration of the profane and the satanic of the first portion. The iconic demon emerging from the mountain has the working name of a devilish Chernobog, the Slavic God of bad fate, emerging on Walpurgis Night. The mountain from which he emerges is said to be Mount Triglav, near Kyiv in southern Russia and the first concept for this was conceived by Heinrich Kley, a German artist Walt Disney was very fond of and who indirectly inspired lots of work in the Studios. In his work, a pen and ink drawing, a towering demon was forcing workers to escape from a factory by blocking the chimneys. At Walt Disney’s Studios, it was Albert Hurter who drew the first sketches of our huge, winged devil, particularly ones in which he was tossing souls into a volcano and in which his knotted clawed hands were playing with minions, letting them fall into the fire while they were trying to climb to safety. It’s a shot we also get to see in the final piece. It was Nielsen, however, who did most of the sketches and finalized the concept, establishing the final appearance of the demon through a series of model sheets. You can see a gallery and additional information at Disney fandom, an excellently researched resource.

If you like this kind of stuff, and if you have the budget, I suggest you get your hands on The Walt Disney Film Archives, a book so huge it comes within a briefcase. I didn’t have the budget, but I do like this kind of stuff, as you might have guessed. It has a huge section (from page 123 to page 177) dedicated to Fantasia, with a large part of it occupied by sketches from A Night on Bald Mountain.

«Nielsen brought his ornamental, flowing and morbidly beautiful design to ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, the only sections possessing his style (or, more accurately, high stylization)»
John Canemaker

In fact, Nielsen worked at Disney for four years, between 1937 and 1941, in Joe Grant’s character design team, before being “let go” (how I hate that term… it makes it seem they’re freeing you, doing you a gracious favor). A highly questionable decision, as Francky Knapp rightly points out here. During these years, he made concepts for Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, and The Little Mermaid, although his work on the latter went unused until they resumed the idea in the late 80s for the movie we know today.

Concept sketch for the Little Mermaid.

On a side note, the concept sketches for the Little Mermaid are strikingly similar to Tolkien’s The Gardens of the Merking’s Palace.

He gets a mention in Fantasia 2000, in the portion where Bette Milder introduces Piano Concerto No. 2 (the ton soldier one) and talks about scraped ideas including Dalì’s short animation (produced in 2003 at last) and shows Kay’s sketches for a ride of the Valkyries.

It is well known that Disney wanted Fantasia to be a permanent feature in movie theatres and had already planned further segments during the production of the main movie itself. Kay Nielsen kept working on it, alongside Bill Wallett and Sam Armstrong at Walt Disney’s Studios, even after the financial failure of Fantasia and, most importantly, even after the United States has entered World War II against Germany. You ought to remember that “Ride of the Valkyries” is by Richard Wagner, an artist who highly fascinated the Nazis, so you could see how this would have been a bad idea. Still, they kept working on it and they explained about it on August, 14th 1941 at an international presentation.

«We deliberately worked away from the Germanic operatic type of staging and towards the older Norse legends and ancient traditions».

The budget was limited but they kept working on it, until 1943 when the subject wasn’t considered to be acceptable anymore, in light of how the World Conflict was going.

«I wonder if its theme of a hero’s death on the battlefield and ascensions into Valhalla in the arms of an armored blonde would win public acceptance at this time».
– Bob Carr, Story Department

I’m pretty sure they have used this in Thor Ragnarock.

A less known piece that was programmed but never finished was The Swan of Tuonela, set to music by Jean Sibelius. Though the art is authored by Sylvia Holland, her inspiration is explicitly drawn from Kay Nielsen’s work both in style and technique.

The morning journey of a skiff traversing cavernous worlds on the river of death captivated both Disney and Stokowski.

The storyboard is so complete you could almost use this as it is and Stokowski even recorded the music with a studio orchestra.

Nielsen allegedly also worked on The Reluctant Dragon, by May 1940 when the project was all in rage, although I haven’t been able to dig up any sketch and one can hardly see his hand in any of the shots of the final picture.

Although Nielsen’s work at Disney had been relatively short, he stayed on as an inspiration for many years to come. In 1980, Mel Shaw was still looking at Kay Nielsen in proposing his Musicana, one of the many sequels to Fantasia Disney had worked on across the years. You can read about it in Volume V of They Drew as They Pleased, Disney’s release of biographic snippets for ifs main artists and contributors across the years.

«The movie would include six musical sequences: Chinese music to present the story of The Emperor’s Nightingale from Hans Christian Andersen with Mickey as its main protagonist; “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov featuring the story of Ali Baba with birds instead of humans; “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius; traditional African music introducing viewers to the African myth of Maco the monkey, stealing the diamond from Ogaro, the rain god; a song by Yma Sumac for a South American sequence; and a frog choir singing Dixieland jazz in New Orleans on a song by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald».

That is surely one movie I’m sad we didn’t get to see. Particularly about Finlandia, Mel Shaw had the chance of looking back at the work he and Nielsen had done together back in the days.

«I think that Finlandia almost is dictated by the music there. It’s heavy in the beginning and dark and gloomy and cold and it should be done very impressionistically and then when the sun starts to come through and it’s fighting the storms that the Ice God is putting up, your colors would start to change and then when the sun comes out, of course then you go to your brilliant colors with the music that goes with it. I think there the styling of the thing is going to be more impressionistic. Kay Nielsen had a way of stylizing things like that».

He should have known better than to talk about the guy who had been fired, right?

1.2. But there’s a lot more

Anyway, Nielsen arrived at Disney when he already was an accomplished illustrator, deemed one of the best. Born in Denmark from a theatre director and the most famous actress of their times, he studied art in Paris and moved to England, where he immediately started working as an illustrator of Fairy-Tales. His first known work comprises of 24 color plates and more than 15 monotone illustrations for In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1913.

Arthur Quiller-Couch, dubbed Q, was a Cornish author of anthologies, well known for his Oxford collection of English poetry and so he speaks of Nielsen’s work, in the preface of his Fairy-Tales retold.

When Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton told me that Mr. Kay Nielsen wished to employ his pencil upon a volume of Fairy Tales, to be called In Powder and Crinoline, I answered that the title and notion it conveyed were, in my opinion, capital…but that if anyone knew where to find in the age of Crinoline a stock of such tales as we wanted I should be obliged by the information.

The most famous story from the collection is The Twelve Dancing Princesses and you can read all about it in this article by Sydney Vollmer. Unfortunately, I do not own the book. Nor am I a fan of crinoline. I’m not even sure it has ever been reprinted.

«He has clad his slender, graceful ladies in ballooning skirts and flowing, voluminous folds with surprisingly charming results. Surely no one ever guessed before how much rhythmic grace, how much beauty of undulating line could be captured from those swaying, bulging habiliments».
The New York Times, December 1923

In the same year and along the same line, he was tasked by The Illustrated London News to illustrate four tales by Charles Perrault in a collection to be published around Christmas 1913: he did Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Bluebeard.

Kai Nielsen’s Cinderella features an orientalistic touch in the black unnamed servant at the bottom of the stairs, while the prince is shouting from the balcony.

In Maria Tatar‘s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, a book I own from the days I was studying Tolkien’s classical illustrators, Nielsen’s Cinderella doesn’t feature, but you can get a pretty good look to the work of two other artists that in this instance are fairly close to Nielsen’s take: Rie Cramer, contemporary to Nielsen and whose work is considered just as revolutionary, and artists like Edmund Dulac (who illustrated Cinderella in 1929), legendary Arthur Rackham (1933) and the Irish Harry Clarke (1922), whose work closely follow theirs. The quotes behind the illustrations are from Tatar’s incredible book and if you like illustrations I suggest you grab it and never let go of it.

Rie Cramer, early 20th Century.
This Dutch Cinderella is physically overwhelmed by her stepsisters, almost double of each other, who primp and fuss while the heroine attends to their needs. Note that vanity is associated with aristocratic bearing, while Cinderella is presented as a modest young woman, willing to humble herself before her comineering stepsisters.

«Now Cinderella you may go, but remember…»
Arthur Rackam, 1933
The contrast between the physical appearance of fairy-tale heroine and fairy godmother could hardly be more striking and is further intensified by the fact that both faces appear in profile. Rackham’s mfairy godmother may have a smile on her face, but her witch’s hat, along with the reminder that there woill be rea,l consequences to a late return, suggests that she is not purely benevolent. With diaphanous evening wear that blends with her ivory and rose hues of her skin, and with one hand coyly lifting her skirts to reveal a slipper peaking out from under them, Cinderella seems a model of playful feminine beauty. The awkward positioning of her arms suggests that the effect achieved is not without effort.

There are no good pictures of Harry Clarke‘s Cinderella from 1922, not at a decent resolution: the bigger have a blue hue which doesn’t do them credit. You can find something on the Camelot Project, here. Particularly, take a look at “Anyone but Cinderella would have dressed their heads awry” and “Cinderella and her prince”, the one that features in Tatar’s book.

As the clock strikes twelve, Cinderella has an anxious look on her face, realizing that she must release herself from the grip of the prince and get back to the coach within a matter of seconds.

There are also 7 illustrations by Edmund Dulac featured in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales but again the one with the godmother seems to be the most relevant in relation to Kay Nielsen’s work. If you compare this with the picture we now have of Cinderella, with a huge responsibility to be taken upon by the same Disney we’ve been talking about before, I can’t but think we have lost very much. Disney’s Cinderella is probably one of the less inspiring works of those years.

With a wave of her magic wand, Cinderella’s godmother chooses the pumpkin destined to become a coach. A luminous figure whose dress lights up the scene more powerfully than the starts in the skies, this godmother promises salvation for the lowly heroine dressed in carefully patched skirts. TYhe light in the cottage window adds a touch of warmth, even if the space within is the site for Cinderella’s oppression.

Bluebeard is also an interesting one because it deviates from the traditional depiction of Perrault’s villain. While artists like Dulac inevitably draw him as a sultan-like figure, well-fed from his wife-eating diet, Nielsen keeps the orientalist look but goes for a different vibe, with his long bony hands and his melancholic look, interpreting in a less literal way his depiction as an abuser and a sexual predator.

He would go even further in 1930, with an illustration in which Bluebeard has a sinister dandy-like appearance. This comes from the second edition of Red Magic, the last book he would illustrate with no less than 58 pictures. You can find a selection here (some colors are not good, which is odd considering the website sells prints, but still it’s a comprehensive collection). The illustration I’m talking about was opening the book.

Regarding Sleeping Beauty, it’s also worth mentioning that he had a chance to work on that multiple times: firstly in this collection of Perrault’s fairy-tales and then in 1925, for the collection Hansel and Gretel, and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm and this would produce some of his the most iconic illustrations. Here’s Sleeping Beauty from those days.

He will also come back working on Aurora more than ten years later, at Disney, and though I love that movie I think his concept sketches would make for a fine remake. You can feel his touch, in the final production, especially for the ending, with Prince Philip fighting his way through the thorns of the forest and in the final battle with Maleficent as a dragon.

The collection also features a beautiful illustration to the ending of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy-tale and if you only saw Once Upon a Time you’re in for quite a surprise. The beauty of the illustration is without any doubt the surrealistic take on the enraged gnome and contrast with the serenity of the court while the imp proceeds in tearing himself in two.

“The Devil told you, the Devil told you!” the little man screamed, and in his rage he stamped his right foot so hard that it went into the ground right up to his waist. Then, in his fury, he seized his left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.

It’s probably my favorite illustration in the whole book.

However, the most famous is certainly Nielsen’s Hansel and Gretel and I’m fairly sure you have seen this even if you’re not an illustration’s geek as I am.

Maria Tatar compares his cottage for Hansel and Gretel with other 6 illustrators and an anonymous (the illustrators being American artist Wanda Gág, a black and white and a color version by Arthur Rackham, beloved artist Jessie Willcox Smith, German artists Hermann Vogel and Ludwig Richter, Middlesex painter George Soper), but none can surpass Nielsen’s surrealistic take.

The cottage in the woods appears like a green oasis in the midts of a terrifying triangle of trees.

If you had a chance of looking at J.R.R. Tolkien‘s work as an illustrator, you see a striking similarity to his Elvenwood. But I’ll get the chance of talking about the relationship between Nielsen and Tolkien in a minute.

Less known, and for no good reason, is his illustration of Snow White, with the dwarves holding vigil, and it has nothing less than a painting by Dalì.

Preserved in a glass coffin, Snow White has the pallor and look of death. The seven dwarves keep guard in a setting that places the coffin on display.

The dwarves themselves are something J.R.R. Tolkien himself will get the chance of being confronted with.

More than a decade later, Nielsen will have the chance to go back working on Snow White too, while ad Disney, and you can see his hand in the Magic Mirror concept, almost transposed literally.

Alongside this, he did other 11 color images and over 20 monochromatic illustrations.

Other works worth mentioning, even if they stray a bit from the fairy-tales theme, are his illustrations to The Arabian Nights, produced around 1917. There’s an extensive collection in this article.

1.3. Nielsen and Tolkien

As you might or might not know, by the time Tolkien sent a proposal for The Hobbit to his editor, Tolkien had been an amateur artist for something like forty years. The most comprehensive book about his side of his work is for sure J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, by Christina Scull and W. G. Hammond, two of the most important scholars of Tolkien’s work who also authored two specific books, one about The Hobbit illustrations and the other one about The Lord of The Rings. In Artist and Illustrator (commonly referred to as simply Artist), the connect the dots between his watercolor Halls of Manwë and Nielsen’s illustration for “Felicia or the Pot of Pinks” in Q’s Powder and Crinoline.

Tolkien’s, Halls of Manwë

Several elements of the picture may have been inspired by the Danish artist Kay Nielsen, List, ah, List to the Zephyr in the Grove! for “Felicia or The Pot of Pinks” in Arthur Quiller-Couch’s In Powder and Crinoline (1913).

Kay Nielsen’s illustration for Felicia

These [elements] include an arched bridge leading to an island with cavernous openings; hanging branches; a plant at lower right; and especially a cliff which looks as if it was pulled straight up out of the ground.

Tolkien rejected Nielsen’s ornamentalism, drawing (for example) naturalistic trees where Nielsen drew elongated forms out of Art nouveau (which, however, are not unlike the trees in Tolkien’s The Land of Pohja). Some of the same pictorial elements, and the flowers profusely blooming in the foreground of Nielsen’s illustration, appear also in Tolkien’s watercolour Rivendell for The Hobbit.

Tolkien, “The land of Pojha”

1.4. Costume and Set Design

Throughout the 20s and 30s, Kay Nielsen worked with Johannes Poulsen, an actor and producer, on set and costume designs for theatrical productions. As you might remember, his parents were both from the theatre: his father was the director of the Dagmar Theatre and his mother was the diva of the Royal Danish Theatre. Among his work with Poulsen, it’s worth a mention the designs on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sherazade, right after he had finished his work on A Thousand and One Nights and was still looking for a publisher. He also designed sets for Aladdin, a quite controversial ballet. You can read about it here. Poulsen will be the one bringing Nielsen to the United States, to work in theatre, although his untimely death would push the friend into the arms of Disney.

1.5. East of the Sun, West of the Moon

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this is Nielsen’s most famous work (we know it’s Fantasia, who are we fooling) but it’s certainly something that left the mark more than others. He was called to work on it in 1914, right after Perrault’s fairy-tales and the Crinoline ones and way before he migrated to the States to work for Disney. The work is a collection of folk stories by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe and he illustrated them with 25 colour plates and more than 21 monotone images. Some of them went on to become absolute icons for the magical and the fantastic. In the book I bought, a preface by Kendra Daniel gets in deep as to why Nielsen was so revolutionary and what was his contribution in the imaginary around these tales. Her essay is titled “Kay Nielsen life and work: artist, designed, innovator”.

If you want to have an extensive look at his work as an illustrator, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition, between last year and the beginning of this one, titled Kay Nielsen’s Enchanted Vision: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection. You can find information here and read all about it here. And yes, this is the same Kendra Daniel of the essay.

She discusses the influences on Nielsen’s art, with Aubrey Beardsley being prominent in the illustration to Perrault, but with Japanese wood-block prints getting into the picture by the time he was working on East of the Sun, West of the Moon, as well as the set designs for the Ballets Russes which debuted in Paris in 1909 and had a deep impact on the artistic panorama of that time. Compared to his work in Powder and Crinoline, here he is even more symbolic, more abstract, with a large usage of full colors both in background and foreground.

His artwork was inspired by the stylization of Japanese art where the narrative subjects are rendered in different portions of the picture plane, which in turn produces contrasting negative space. This, combined with his strong palette, intricated ornamental detail, and the fine rendering of his original imagination, created twenty-five stunning works of art.

Kay Nielsen’s Prince Lindworm

The book has also another essay on Nielsen, penned by Colin White and titled “As Book become art, an artist rises to the top”.


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