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The Dark, Enchanted Worlds of Illustrator Kay Nielsen

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“No sooner had he whistled” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from “The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain” (all images © and courtesy Taschen)

Whether or not you know it, you’ve probably seen Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen’s work before: he helped animate the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Disney’s Fantasia and contributed concept paintings for The Little Mermaid. But fewer people today have seen Nielsen’s most enchanting works: illustrations for a collection of fairy tales, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, first published in 1914.

Knights with peacock headdresses, star-crossed lovers, mischievous elves, and armored giants fill these art-nouveau compositions, bringing to life 15 fairy tales collected by famed folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe as they traveled across Norway in the mid-19th century. The book was massively popular when it was published and cemented Nielsen’s reputation as one of the best children’s illustrators of all time. In 2008, an original signed copy commanded the highest price ever paid for an illustrated children’s book at auction.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of its original publication, Taschen has released a gorgeous reprint of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, making Nielsen’s enchanted world accessible to a new generation of readers and to an audience broader than the art collectors who covet his work. “Nielsen is an illustrator’s illustrator,” Noel Daniel, the book’s editor, says. “If someone today knows who he is, they’ve likely heard about him from an artist friend. His books are to be found in any animators library today because of what they teach you about drawing, composition, telling a story in a frame. He’s among the go-to illustrators of his era for people to learn how to draw.”

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Cover of ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ (click to enlarge)

Nielsen’s mystical imagination will likely strike a chord in today’s fantasy-obsessed landscape. “So much in pop culture now draws on this very Scandinavian idea of nature as being a haven for the supernatural, the idea that natural elements have lives of their own, which you see a lot of in Nielsen’s work,” Daniel says. “There’s this pantheistic approach to nature, where there’s good and evil, giants and trolls and witches, all kinds of things — and today, you can see that in Game of Thrones, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings.”

Thanks largely to Disney’s sugarcoated adaptations of what were originally grim stories, fairy tales in the present popular imagination have a reputation for being saccharine and cutesy, all happily-ever-after. But Nielsen’s work draws much of its power from darkness and mystery — he didn’t believe that stories shouldn’t scare children. His work was, in the end, too strange for Disney; the studio let him go in 1941, before Fantasia was released.

“He was able to plumb the darker aspects of human imagination, with the way he used lines, created bodies that were both menacing and sweet,” Daniel says. “This duality is something that’s very popular today — it’s not just for children [but] appeals to an older market, too, because of its emotional complexity. It’s both fantastical and appealing to the lonely heart. That’s why Nielsen was unable to sustain a career in Hollywood. He couldn’t take its conveyer-belt approach.” Like many of the characters in these fairy tales, Nielsen did not live happily ever after. After losing his job at Disney, he returned to Denmark, where he had trouble finding work despite his earlier successes. He died in poverty at the age of 71.

Taschen’s East of the Sun andWest of the Moon is not the first reprint of the beloved 1914 collection, but as the highest-quality edition and the one most faithful to the original, with the largest, glossiest images, it’s the first to pay proper homage to Nielsen’s legacy.

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“He too saw the image in the water (…)” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “The Lassie and her Godmother”
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“The Lad in the Bear’s skin” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “The Blue Belt”
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“And flitted away as far as they could” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”
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“The Lad in the battle” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “The Widow’s Son”
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“And this time she whisked off the wig” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “The Widow’s Son”
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“But still the Horse begged him” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “The Widow’s Son”
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“So the man gave him a pair of snowshoes” (1914), illustration by Kay Nielsen from the tale “The Three Princesses of Whiteland”

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, illustrated by Kay Nielsen, is published by Taschen and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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