Kay Nielsen and His Art Nouveau Fairy Tales

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember but, aside from a mandatory Humanities class in college, I’ve rarely sought out influence through other artists. That’s changed somewhat in the last few years, but spending 90% of my life largely ignorant of other illustrators has left that facet of the art universe relatively unexplored by me. When speaking of visual artists, chances are I’ve never heard of them. So it came as a pleasant surprise when, last week, my friend Jared asked me if I’d ever heard of Kay Nielsen. 

The image used to introduce me to Kay Nielsen. 

The Age of Generic Dragons

The initial image Jared shared with me was taken from Nielsen’s illustration work for a project called East of the Sun, West of the Moon which compiled fairy tales that Nielsen further brought to life through his mystical art nouveau illustrations. This brings me to a personal point that I feel is particularly illuminated by the mastery in Nielsen’s unique works: a cursory search for “fantasy art” brings up a seemingly inexhaustible army of computer-generated pieces with, in my opinion, only the minutest of distinctions between them. They’re nice enough to look at but they lack the combined spirit and edge of artists like Nielsen. I’ll rarely waste moments focusing on what I don’t like in art so let me put it succinctly: I’d get lost for longer in just one of Kay Nielsen’s majestic visions than I would in thousands of computer-generated generic dragons that seem to be the hallmark of modern fantasy art. 

The Sylvan Mystery of Kay Nielsen

I haven’t read the fairy tales that accompany Nielsen’s works but the stories untold almost make them more special to me. When given just what Nielsen allows us (and don’t get me wrong, what he allows us is generous) we can fill in the blanks with our own stories and visions. I love this mystery in art though I often get so excited by my own visions that I can’t help but explain every nuance of my art and every tale behind it. The questions posed by the elongated, pointed, sylvan characters that elegantly stroll through the fantasy-scapes of Nielsen reignite the excitement of childhood enigmas. I would have loved to see a Kay Nielsen and George MacDonald collaboration. MacDonald’s horror fantasy fairy tale Lilith: A Romance was one of the most profoundly moving novels I’ve had the honor to read (and one which I’m sure to revisit at great length on a posting here in the future). Nielsen’s nimble yet regal creations, straddling the line between children and adults, would perfectly suit the mood of MacDonald’s Lilith.

The Folly in Abandoning Art

In reading about Nielsen’s life, it was disheartening to discover that he died in poverty after being let go from his concept art position at Disney. During his 4 years at Disney, Nielsen created art for the iconic “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia as well as concept art that was used over 30 years after his death in Disney’s rendition of The Little Mermaid. Thinking of so many great artists dying in penniless rejection brings me concern for modern society’s ignorance to the integral nature of art. Art communicates mythology. Without it, we are walking alone in darkness and we’ll never find one another. Following his death, Nielsen’s estate attempted to donate his amassed body of illustration work to museums but was met with rejection. Obviously, someone recalled Nielsen’s greatness and today his work is honored so, at least for his audience, this story has a happy ending. But abandoning art is a dangerous folly of the modern world and one that can’t endure for long.