The Fantastical Illustrations of Kay Nielsen

 ‘She Held Tight to the White Bear’ | PC: East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914)

‘She Held Tight to the White Bear’ | PC: East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1914)

Memento Artem

“‘Will you give me your youngest daughter? If you will, I’ll make you as rich as you are now poor,’ said the Bear.” Sound like the beginning of a warm and cozy story to spend the holidays reading? Well, this excerpt is from one of the great fairy tale books of the 20th century—East of the Sun and West of the Moon. This brilliant collection of 15 tales was compiled by the folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe during their travels across Norway. However, the book itself contains more than Scandinavian fairy tales. It also contains beautiful illustrations by the Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen. 

Winter is a common theme found in the stories of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Nielsen, a Dane, was no stranger to the cold of winter, which empowered him to create a beautiful series of watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings. In these illustrations, he doesn’t sugarcoat the dark realities of winter. 

He, in all his illustrations, captures a menacingly elegant portrayal of reality. Such as the stark figure of a knight trudging through the snow or the gruesomely powerful personification of the North Wind. Each illustrated character provides an element of uneasiness, yet attractiveness that draws the viewer into the scene of the story.

This raw and not so “happily-ever-after” approach in these illustrations was not new to Nielsen. It’s what consumed his artistic career. In fact, it’s what caused him, in 1941, to be let go from Disney before Fantasia was released. Noel Daniel, the editor of Taschen’s reprint of the book, states, “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.” Sound like a familiar concept? Well, this is a common theme used in movies and television today. For example, the Disney (oh, the irony) 2013 film Frozen casts Elsa as the misunderstood Snow Queen with enchanting and dark powers. This demonstrates how Nielsen was ahead of his time with his illustrations and not even Disney was excluded from adopting themes he pioneered. 

Nielsen’s diverse host of complicated and multifaceted figures allow for people to emotionally engage with them. It seems anyone could have the potential of having a favorite character or scene illustrated by him. I find myself drawn to the scene ‘She Held Tight to the White Bear’. There’s something about the desolate landscape of winter with the young girl on a journey atop the polar bear that’s almost hypnotic. Each figure seems to hold a different symbolism of winter. The young woman, being the side of winter that is beauty and elegance, contrasting the bear, which could be the side of strength and endurance. However, each need each other in a way or else the scene wouldn’t work. It’s scenes like this that shows Nielsen’s mastery of engaging the viewer. 

Interested in curling up this season and discovering the worlds Nielsen crafted within East of the Sun and West of the Moon? Or maybe gifting the book to a lover of fairytales? Taschen, an art book publishing company, recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the books publishment by reprinting it. In it, you’ll be pulled into the stories through the high-quality prints of Nielsen’s illustrations coupled with the amazing tales of Scandinavian adventures. All that’s missing is a roaring fire and a cup of hot cocoa.


Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.