Besides those who are familiar with the Golden Age at the Disney Studios (roughly the time period that ranges from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Bambi, or 1937 to 1942), I feel like not many people know about an amazing artist named Kay Nielsen. He was born in 1886 in Copenhagen; he went on to study art in Paris for several years, and then moved to England. There, he was commissioned to illustrate books containing fairy tales and children’s stories, including collections of tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
Now, I can’t say that I know too much about Nielsen’s earlier life; I predominately only know about his work at Disney, which I’ll jump forward to because that’s what I am most interested in.
Nielsen moved to California in 1939, where he was recommended to Walt Disney (via legendary animator Joe Grant). He then began working on providing concept art for Disney’s 1940 feature Fantasia–my personal favorite film. He set to work on two of Fantasia’s segments: Night on Bald Mountain (based on Modest Mussorgsky’s piece) and Ave Maria (from Franz Schubert’s opus). I don’t know about you–I mean, I feel like many people have never even seen Fantasia–but I could stare at Nielsen’s concept pieces for a large amount of time; and the perfect thing is that, for the most part, the animators who worked on the pieces (like Vlad Tytla, who worked on the infamous Chernabog in this sequence, and then became the supervising animator for Dumbo in the 1941 feature) retained Nielsen’s visual style. Get ready to be amazed:
Night on Bald Mountain
They’re something special, huh? Now, there are many, many other pieces of concept art Nielsen illustrated for these two Fantasia segments (which can be found on the Anthology DVD set of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, and the Blu-ray release; both, unfortunately, are out of print, but, luckily, I own both).
Now, Kay Nielsen didn’t just work on Fantasia; he also did some stunning pieces for an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in the early 40s. One can immediately tell that the creators of the 1989 version (directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) used Nielsen’s work as a reference in their adaptation of the tale. Take a look at these:
Quite different in tone from the ’89 version, that’s for sure. All right, all right, enough with the pictures. But, honestly, Nielsen’s work still amazes me. I honestly don’t know too much about art (even though I went on multiple art tours while in Germany; instead I walked around and decided to not pay attention to the tour guide. Oops…), but I’d like to think these pieces are quite fantastic. They are hauntingly beautiful and undoubtedly unique. They evoke a certain kind of fear, sadness, and pain (except for, perhaps, the work done for Ave Maria, which carries a more optimistic note). Even if there is a glimmer of hope (say, in bright colors), there is still a dark richness, a melancholic tone which I find entirely compelling. His work also kind of reminds me of a mixture between Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle (a bit of colorful whimsy with a high degree of preciseness and uniformity). But, still, it’s completely its own thing, his own kind of visual style. Plus, it’s quite unfair to say that he reminds me of Blair and Earle since the former was at the Disney studio around the same time as Nielsen and the latter wasn’t hired at the Disney studio until 1951 (about a decade after Nielsen departed from the studio).
Nielsen’s life did not end too well; he died in poverty on June 21, 1957, leaving not much of a legacy in the eyes of the public, in America or Denmark. But, at least it seems to me, Nielsen’s work is becoming more appreciated, and we can only hope that more people will begin to see how much of an artist he was.
The University of Pittsburgh’s ENR page provides a much more comprehensive and detailed look at Nielsen and his work: http://www.library.pitt.edu/libraries/is/enroom/illustrators/nielsen.htm
Oh, and here are the scenes of Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria; you can really see how the animators retained Nielsen’s visual style: