If Walt Disney gave us the definitive picture of German fairy tales such as Cinderella and Snow White, first published in 1812 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kay Nielsen helped the world imagine the settings and characters found in the stories of Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. The lifelong friends were inspired by the Grimms, and like the brothers, the look of the stories they had collected came to life many years after they were published in 1841. In the case of Asbjørnsen and Moe, the catalyst was a London publisher named Hodder & Stoughton, which hired Danish artist Nielsen, in 1914, to illustrate a collection of the friends’ Norwegian stories called East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
That volume is reproduced in its entirety, with a gorgeous new layout by Andy Disl, in a new slipcovered book from Taschen. Like the Hodder & Stoughton version, Nielsen’s illustrations are the book’s stars. Unlike it, the Taschen package also includes illustrated essays about Asbjørnsen and Moe’s contribution to the 19th-century’s preoccupation with “indigenous literature,” as well as an overview of Nielsen’s career, which included a stop at Walt Disney’s studio to create the artwork for the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in the 1941 animated masterpiece, Fantasia.
Nielsen’s influences ranged from the Art Nouveau fantasies of Aubrey Beardsley, which can be seen in his earliest work, to Japanese woodcuts and the Ballet Russes, which dominate East of the Sun and West of the Moon. More important than Nielsen’s influences, though, is the way he defined Nordic cool, both in terms of temperature and sensibility. In Nielsen’s world, verticality rules – it is a place filled with uniformly tall and slender people striding serenely or doing battle beneath limitless skies. Diving into the details of Nielsen’s intricate illustrations, one can almost feel the bite of the frigid air they breathe or the sting of the blades, spears, and arrows they wield. This angularity and precision are perfect foils for his thick, slow trolls, with their wide feet and fat phallic noses, giving them a look that in 1914 must have appeared truly monstrous to young and old readers alike.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
by Kay Nielsen (illustrator) and Noel Daniel (editor)
2015, 168 pages, 9.4 x 11.7 x 0.9 inches