It’s not every fairy-tale illustrator who could pull off collaborations with both Walt Disney and Karl Lagerfeld, but the Danish artist Kay Nielsen (1886–1957) forged a sophisticated aesthetic that embraced the strangeness of these tales while mirroring the latent eroticism that have made them stick for centuries. He was, in a word, catnip to big-time make-believers like Disney and Lagerfeld. In the late 1930s, the former hired Nielsen to help conceive and design the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” sequences that form Fantasia’s outré climax. Eight decades later, Lagerfeld drew inspiration for his Fall 2016 Fendi couture collection from Nielsen’s 1914 masterpiece, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a collection of Norwegian fairy tales. Some of Lagerfeld’s dresses literally reproduced Nielsen’s filigreed illustrations.
Those of us who can’t afford couture will have our own chance to get closer to Nielsen when what promises to be a spectacular exhibition of his work opens at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on July 20. The show’s 53 pieces span the breadth of Nielsen’s career, including his designs for theater. As curator Meghan Melvin points out, a single illustration might betray all at once Nielsen’s fascination with traditional Japanese and Persian art as well as his conversance with contemporaries in avant-garde theater design, fashion, and art. “Of course children will enjoy this exhibition, but many of the works really are not for a child audience,” Melvin says. “This is not your typical picture-book situation, to be blunt.” —Bruce Handy