The Polar Bear in Art
Considering the great respect and spiritual attachment the polar bear has, I would expect it to be featured more often in Golden Age illustration.
The great white bear has been the subject of folk tales and legends told for centuries by the Inuits and other indigenous people of the Arctic. Their stories are of polar bears teaching men to hunt, a cub adopted by a childless woman and the terrifying Nanurluk, a bear the size of an iceberg.
The Norwegian folk tales tell of men transformed into bears by evil trolls, hags or witches, wandering the tundra in search of a true love who will break the spell.
Happily, two of my favourite artists provided polar bear illustrations for such tales, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac.
The first is Nielsen’s White Bear from the Norwegian folk tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The bear carries his future bride to a magic castle;
“Well, mind and hold tight by my shaggy coat, and then there’s nothing to fear,” said the Bear, so she rode a long, long way.
Eventually, through determination and a knowledge of how to remove candle wax from a shirt, the girl gets a prince and the bear gets the girl.
Below is Dulac’s Snow Maiden from The Dreamer of Dreams. The hero comes across a large number of polar bears.
They came slowly towards him, quiet and majestic, slightly swinging their heavy bodies as they glided onwards.
They accompany a snow maiden, gathering broken hearts;
Everything about her was white, glistening and shining ; so shining that the human eye could hardly bear the radiance. her long white hair hung about her ; a circle of glow-worms surrounded her forehead.
To see all illustrations by Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac, just click on the cards below – and thanks for visiting 🙂
Kay (pronounced “kigh”) Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957) was born in Copenhagen into an artistic family. His mother, Oda Nielsen, was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time, both at the Royal Danish Theater and at the Dagmarteater, where his father was Director.
Kay Nielsen studied art in Paris before moving to England in 1911. His first commission was from Hodder and Stoughton in 1913. The work was ‘In Powder and Crinoline’, a selection of fairy tales by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, later published in America as ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’.
The colour images for ‘In Powder and Crinoline’ – and those of ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon : Old Tales from the North’ a year later – were reproduced by a 4 colour process, instead of the usual 3 used by the other illustrators at the time. The books he illustrated were also distinct from those of his contemporaries. Where Rackham and Dulac chose 19th Century classics, Nielsen chose works that he could make his own. Few artists have attempted a different version of ‘In Powder and Crinoline’.
The first World War interrupted Nielsen’s life and career. His next work, ‘Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales’, was begun in 1912 not but completed until 1924. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ came a year later but neither work rejuvinated his career or the market for illustrated gift books. Five years passed before the publication of ‘Red Magic’, the final title to be illustrated by Nielsen.
Nielsen worked in Copenhagen as a theater producer staging many fantastical productions until he and his partner, Johannes Poulsen, were invited to stage Max Reinhardt’s ‘Everyman’ at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936. After Poulsen’s death, Nielsen and Ulla, his wife since 1926, remained in California where he decided to try the animation business. He applied for work at Walt Disney Productions.
Nielsen’s animations were featured in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of ‘Fantasia’ but the difference in style and intense pressure of the studio system was too much for the 50 year old artist and he was laid off. He returned briefly to start the concept art for ‘The Little Mermaid’ but the film was delayed and not released until almost 50 years later; not in Nielsen’s lifetime.
Kay and Ulla returned to Denmark but found his work no longer in demand. They returned to California where Nielsen received a few commissions for murals but the couple’s final years were spent in poverty, their home and necessities provided by friends. He died in 1957 at age 71. Ulla followed him a year later.
Before her death, Ulla gave an unpublished set of paintings to their friends. Nielsen had started work on Scheherazade’s ‘Arabian Nights’ at the end of the war. These striking illustrations were influenced by Persian miniatures but when the friends tried to place the works in museums, they found none were interested. After many years in the dark, they were published in 1977 as David Larkin’s ‘The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen’, some 55 years after they were created.
In Powder and Crinoline
“The genius of the young artist who has illustrated this book may be left to speak for itself”. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
I have been very busy and am now proud to present my Kay Nielsen products to you. Zazzle have a large variety of items that are now adorned with Nielsen’s fantastic artwork including mousemats, bags, t-shirts, cushions, jigsaws and mugs as well as cards, postcards and prints printed on high quality paper. Enjoy 🙂