Kay Nielsen, a fairytale artist

Disegno ispirato da Kay Nielsen
Disegno di Zoa Studio ispirato da Kay Nielsen

About sixty years ago, on June 21, 1957, Kay Nielsen, a Danish illustrator, popular for his collaboration with Disney (for example in Fantasy) died. Curiously, there is no Italian-language page on Wikipedia, but only in English, so today we will tell you more about this creative talent, as we had already done for other illustrators such as Harry Clarke or Alphonse Mucha.

Living in an artistic world

Kay Nielsen was born on March 12, 1886 in Copenhagen within a family of artists. Both parents were in fact actors, the mother one of the most acclaimed performers of the time, the father also a theater director.
Kay attended the art school in Paris until 1911, then moved to England until 1916. The first job that was commissioned to him in this country is an illustration for a storybook. It was 1913 and Kay was asked for 24 color plates and 15 monochrome for In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. However, it must be admitted that the initial concept for the project, including the title, is attributable to a young Nielsen, not to Quiller-Couch.

The latter stated in this regard:

The genius of the young artist who has illustrated this book may be left to speak for itself, as it assuredly will: but I will say a word about the title, which is also of his invention.

Other notable illustrations

In the same year Kay Nielsen was commissioned a set of illustrations to accompany the stories of Charles Perrault, for example Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

The following year, 1914, was a particularly intense year for the artist who produced at least three illustrations from the life of Joan of Arc. A few years later these illustrations were completed with a piece of text taken from The Monk of Fife. Note a peculiarity: each image of these series is accompanied by a “mille fleur” border. What does it mean? Mille fleur is a specific style, dating back to the medieval tapestry tradition, in which the background of the image is characterized by many small flowers and plants. I recommend using this gem when you go to the museum for a cultural appointment!

In the same year Nielsen devoted himself to the illustration of fairy tales for children. It might be an understatement to think of great innovations made in the “world of children”; instead it should be underlined how Nielsen’s illustrations were subjected to a four-color process. Actually, a three-color process was typical of the time and very traditional. This obviously makes the images of our today’s protagonist much more alive and vibrant.

And this particular coloring process was used in 1914 for “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“.

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

I was brought up in a classical view concerning art, but I remember I loved the Chinese drawings and carvings in my mother’s room brought home from China by her father. And this love for the works of Art from the East has followed me. My artistic wandering started with the early Italians over Persia, India, to China.

So Kay Nielsen tells part of his training. And this interest in the Orient influenced the silhouettes of his characters and the settings of his works, but not only. One of his first works, never published, is “The Book of Death”, of clear Middle Eastern inspiration. From 1918 to 1922 he worked, without ever seeing the light, at “One Thousand and One Nights“.

The concept

In 1914, only one year later “In powder and Crinoline” came out “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“: a compendium of 25 color plates and 21 monochromatic. Nielsen’s attention to this work is transferred to the North, to the Norwegian legends and popular stories collected in the book “Asbjørnsen and Moe”: a collection universally recognized by the name of the two scholars who put it together.

But “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is also the place where Nielsen brings East and West together: where Persian horses cross the Scandinavian Alps, Japanese sunsets echo the twilight of the gods and in arabesque architecture they pose in an iconic way characters just come out from the Ring of the Nibelungs.

To describe Nielsen’s work, we report an excerpt from the New York Times review (December 20, 1914):

Mr Nielsen is a newcomer among illustrators, and he deserves a royal welcome, for his lines are beautiful, and he has a powerful imagination, a sense of the supernatural which makes him particularly successful in the interpretation of the curious old Norse folk tales which fill this sumptuous volume.

Kay Nielsen’s technique and career

Kay Nielsen
Kay Nielsen

Let’s go back to today’s protagonist to tell you that in the English period he came into contact with The Society of Tempera Painters. Thanks to this club Kay Nielsen learnt new techniques and this allowed him to optimize the time for a paintning.

Before returning to Denmark, in 1917, Nielsen made a trip to New York where an exhibition of his works was held. In Copenhagen, the protagonist of today’s story worked on The Arabian Nights, a project that did not see the light until after Nielsen’s death.

In the 1920s Kay Nielsen continued to illustrate, specifically we mention the contribution to the Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen. The tales include 12 color panels and over 40 monochrome. Once again, the Mille Fleur technique, which we now know, is used for the borders.

A few years passed, Nielsen became more important in the world of illustration, up to Red Magic, a work completely created by him. And this was the sparkle that made him land in the United States..

Key Nielsen working at Disney

In 1939 Kay Nielsen went to live in California, but he did not immediately work for Disney. It was the commendation by Joe Grant, an American artist and writer, to bring him to The Walt Disney Company.

Nielsen’s illustrations were used for some sequences of Fantasia, a masterpiece cartoon. We can safely call Mussorgsky’s demon scene “one of the coolest scenes of all time”.

The highly personal and conceptual style meant that Nielsen’s works were included in many of Disney’s works. Even his tables for The Little Mermaid were used. Unfortunately, however, Nielsen, once again, does not have time to see his work because the production of the motion picture begins in 1989, over 30 years after Nielsen’s death.

Nielsen worked at Disney until 1941, when he was fired. On the break with Disney we read in They Drew As they Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Musical Years what really happened:

“As the war closed foreign territories Disney released, the Studio looked for ways to limit the cost of future productions,” writes author Didier Ghez, “[Nielsen] found that his detailed perfectionism, once so valuable on Fantasia, was now viewed as liability.” He didn’t abide by production deadlines, preferring to work slowly and let his drawings reveal themselves to him in their own time. It’s terribly romantic. But alas, not very economical. Still, given that Disney was consulting his storyboards for The Little Mermaid decades later, the mind reels of what might’ve been had they held onto him a little longer…

Kay Nielsen’s last years

After being fired from Disney, Kay Nielsen briefly returned to his homeland, but without success. He spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles in poverty, working for some local schools and churches.

To make an already critical picture even worse, Nielsen contracted a chronic cough that accompanied him until his death in 1957. His wife, Ulla, with whom Kay Nielsen had been married since he was 21, died the following year. Before her death, Ulla donated her husband’s latest illustrations to the artist Frederik Monkhoff, so to exhibit them in museums. Something that did not happen.

The recognition as an artist for Kay Nielsen comes, as too many times, well after his death. For example, Van Gogh knows something about it. Or Antonio Ligabue.  We at Zoa Studio saw this with our own eyes recently during a trip. Convinced of seeing a monumental work by Alphonse Mucha in a museum, we discover that it was no longer there, because it has not yet found a new place in Prague, the homeland of the same artist.

For those wishing to see Kay Nielsen’s works and talent, this Youtube channel has divided his illustrations by work, creating a playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLBBD0C26C94AD79EB

#unforgettableart

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