The visionary illustrator Kay Nielsen gets a show at the MFA Boston.
In 1940, an obscure Danish-born artist was fired from Walt Disney Productions. At the age of 54, Kay (rhymes with “high”) Nielsen found himself unable to keep up with the grueling pace demanded of the animators, most of whom were decades younger than he. During the three or so years that he drew for Disney, Nielsen made a modest impact, contributing to a few classic sequences, such as “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” from Fantasia. He even made some preliminary drawings for a planned animated version of the story “The Little Mermaid,” written by his fellow-countryman Hans Christian Andersen. The project was shelved, but 50 years later, when The Little Mermaid was finally released, Nielsen’s name was there when the credits rolled.
The artist himself had died in poverty in Los Angeles in 1957. Few then remembered that Nielsen had once been one of the greatest book illustrators, with a late-Romantic sensibility formed at the turn of the century. His exquisite, delicately colored images graced the pages of fantasy and fairy-tale classics such as East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Old Tales from the North (1914), The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1913), and Red Magic (1930). Generations of readers grew up on these books, but it took until the 1970s, with the revival of interest in illustration art, for Nielsen’s original artwork for the illustrations to be appreciated as fine art.
Now, nearly 50 watercolors and drawings by the artist are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in the exhibition “Kay Nielsen’s Enchanted Vision: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” (through January 20, 2020). The show marks the first time in six decades that such a large group of Nielsen works, both published and unpublished, has been exhibited in the U.S. The Daniels have promised their collection to the MFA as a gift. Kendra Daniel says, “We’ve always felt that Kay Nielsen was an artist whose art demanded attention, and now he’s receiving it through this exhibition. It is a complete joy to share our collection with MFA visitors.” Meghan Melvin, the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Curator of Design at the MFA and organizer of the exhibition, says, “Nielsen’s illustrations are mesmerizing when seen in print, but this exhibition provides an exceptionally rare opportunity to see his original works of art, which are breathtaking with their powerful imagery and extraordinary detail. I’m delighted to present our visitors with a chance to experience firsthand the beautiful and enchanted worlds born from Nielsen’s mind.”
Nielsen brought those worlds to life using techniques and aesthetic inspirations drawn from various sources, including Scandinavian mythology, Persian miniature painting, and Japanese woodblock printmaking. He also absorbed a great deal from the works of Aubrey Beardsley, Edward Burne-Jones, and other English masters of 1880s and 1890s book illustration. The Japanese influence is particularly noticeable in several plates from East of the Sun and West of the Moon; for example, one in particular features an ocean wave that is strongly reminiscent of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa (circa 1829–33). The intricate, precise ornamentation of the details in this watercolor almost look like Japanese lacquerwork, and the bold colors are reminiscent of ukiyo-e. This Japonisme, of course, was very prevalent among other artists of the fin-de-siècle period in Western Europe, and Decadents such as Beardsley as well as practitioners of Art Nouveau modeled their line-work on that of the great Japanese printmakers.
A unique magic pervades Nielsen’s scenes, which are much more than mere visual augmentations of the written word. In an illustration for Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1925), the witch’s house in the center of the woods is set off by the rich green color of the trees and grass of the immediate surrounding vicinity, which contrasts sharply with the grim gray of the rest of the forest. We are in an enchanted zone here, morally ambiguous but seductively beautiful. In an illustration made for Flowers and Flames (1921), the central female figure is completely enclosed by dense foliage drawn in a Persian-influenced style. The effect is magical and timeless, erasing the boundaries between the realms of humanity and nature.
Other works by Nielsen in the exhibition have a more decadent vibe. An illustration for Arthur Quiller-Couch’s collection of French fairytales In Powder and Crinoline (published in the U.S. as The Twelve Dancing Princesses) depicts an elegant dance in a style somewhere between Beardsley and Georges Barbier. The clothes are depicted with the panache of a fashion illustrator, while the faces of the dancers and partygoers have sinister expressions. The drawing throughout is exquisitely delicate. Eight early black-and-white drawings from a series titled The Book of Death (1910), which Nielsen made while a student in Paris, show the young artist in a decidedly avant-garde, Decadent guise. In one of them, titled Inevitable, a lover kneels at the bedside of his beloved while skull-faced, black-robed Death enters at the French door, stage right. When Nielsen exhibited these works in London in 1912, the attention he garnered led to his first major book commission.
The son of a theater director and a prominent actress, Nielsen had the theater in his blood. World War I interrupted his illustration career for almost a decade and forced him to return to Copenhagen from London. Back in his native country, he dedicated himself to set and costume design in order to make a living. This experience served him well when he emigrated to the United States in the mid-1930s. He and a Danish friend and collaborator, Johannes Poulsen, were invited by the great director and producer Max Reinhardt to design a production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936. This commission led to his move to Hollywood and eventually to the Disney job. Examples of Nielsen’s theater design drawings and concept drawings for Fantasia are on view in the MFA’s exhibition.
Nielsen’s career never really recovered from the disruption of World War I, and while he produced high-quality work in the ’20s and ’30s, he really belongs culturally to the prewar period, one whose taste for fantasy somewhat resembles our own. As visitors to the MFA Boston will see, Nielsen’s drawings and paintings open a door into a timeless and magical world that we are glad to enter.
By John Dorfman