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Leaves of a Book from Childhood
on 15 November 2007
As a child I found Kay Nielsen's illustratons by turns terrifying and exquisitely beautiful. His illustrations for "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" fell into the former category, as did several of those for "In Powder and Crinoline": the black-winged North Wind striding over a churning sea; and the ghastly periwigged phantoms casting distorted shadows on the wall as they toss dice for each other's souls. Nielsen's lyrical landscapes and lovely ladies with powdered wigs and crinoline skirts belong to the latter: the white marble grecian temple atop a cliff overlooking a pool, reflecting a marble moon bridge; and the twelve dancing princesses moving secretly through a forest of slim-trunked tall trees whose trailing leaves seem like cascades of pearls and emeralds. I especially liked Nielsen's trees and recall trying to imitate them in my drawings. I also loved his star-spattered skies.
As an adult, I can see why I found many of his illustrations threatening, and I can also see why I found so many of them enchanting. His stark decorative designs with their somber palette, and his angry male figures, which I can see now are ambiguously gendered, seemed like the stuff of nightmares. At the same time, his slender princesses with their elaborately patterned silks and satins seemed like the stuff of enchanted dreams.
In either event, Kay Nielsen's illustrations are unforgettable!