Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886. The date is significant; as it means that his art reached its lofty heights during the dreamstate that was Europe before World War One. It was a fairy-ring which surrounded a group of illustrators whose mythic colors and living textures would not be equaled, hard as the unfolding century might try.
His influences were many and varied: Japanese woodcuts and watercolors, the natural asymmetry of Art Nouveau, the violent shadows and delicate yet immovable lines of Aubrey Beardsley.
But there was another influence at work…he painted frozen stars, snow-drenched landscapes, warm rugs and furs, hair that was thick and braided, with lines as delicate as the filigree cracks in melting ice. There was a chilly Nordic inspiration running throughout his paintings: black mountains, white skies, barefoot princesses, Iron Kings – even a pretty lassie's face is reflected in a pale and frigid pool.
In 1914 a selection of Norwegian folktales was published, under the collective name of 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon'. The title speaks of undisclosed distances and of places beyond the knowledge of the ether, of clouds and planets. These are stories of magic, blood, violence, love, religion and nature. Nielsen provided the illustrations.
'The Blue Belt' tells of a beggar boy and his search for his love, the black-eyed princess of Arabia. During the course of its telling there is transference of power, a morphing of identities, and the merging between man and nature.
This illustration from the story is one of my favorites. In the princess' tall room, graced with a single jeweled lamp and a rich length of tapestry the lovers embrace, kneeling on a cushion stamped with a pattern of roses and tendrils. The fabric is hypnotic, like leaning into a jungle of ferns. Her tiny pink slippers are enticing. The rich decorative passages are balanced against an unadorned wall of black lines. The only warmth in the painting is in the bare arms and the young faces pressed against each other.
'The Lassie And Her Godmother' is Christianity's version of Pandora's Box…the Lassie is told by her foster-mother that she must leave but three rooms of her house alone. But as there is no cure for curiosity, she peeped into each forbidden chamber, and there escaped a Star, the Moon and the Sun.
She was banished.
But she was very lovely, so that when a Prince saw her, he was determined that she would be his queen.
They rode away, their gowns curved and graceful, seeming to grow out of the ground and from the horse's carved musculature. The forest is stylized: they literally ride over a carpet of flowers. The only flesh and blood to be seen is in the prince's shield – the eyes of the bronze face have just flickered open, and it gazes balefully at us, as a warning of the suffering to come.
In the fullness of time, she bears three children; but at each birth, the foster-mother comes to take them from her.
When the parents' dispair could be borne no longer, the foster-mother reappeared with the queen's babies, saying, "Here are your children; now you shall have them again. I am the Virgin Mary, and so grieved as you have been, so grieved was I when you let out sun, and moon and star."
'The Three Princesses of Whiteland' is a tale populated with talking beasts, birds and fish; with swords, trolls, magic snowshoes and three kidnapped princesses buried up to their necks in the snow.
A brave lad rescues them, and marries the princess of his choice as his reward. He loses her but finds his way back with the help of the North Wind and a pair of snowshoes which will carry its owner indefatigably in whatever direction the toes are pointed.
Here he is seen striding forcefully against a wind that is unseen, but still implied…the hero's long blond hair is blown back, the yellow filaments blending with the crimson and gold patterned cape that billows behind him. The wind has piled the snowdrifts high, and his profile is determined, and pale from cold though his brow is dark and unflinching. On one side he carries his sword clutched in one granite fist, on the other a gold shield rests at his shoulder, looking like a moon making its way to the heights of the evening sky. His outfit is a madness of lines, circles, swirls – clasping together to form a spectacular embroidery.
Beauty and melancholy. Cold daylight, Nordic twilight, arctic sunsets, midnight winds. Creatures of legend and of the earth. Rich patterns, empty skies, spaces whose emptiness both reveal and accentuate. A delicate thread of line stitched into impossible textures.
The decoration and details of these illustrations were created from the observation and love of the natural world; but they were also created from ideas imagined when listening in on the tales spun by the mind's whimsy, whispered on a cold winter's night.