by Terri Windling
In 1941, good fortune came in the form of Jasmine Britton, supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system. Distressed to find an artist of Nielsen’s caliber living in genteel poverty, she pulled some strings and located funds with which to hire him to create a full-scale mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School. It was a vast undertaking, a painting on which the artist spent three long years of hard work. When the mural was finally completed, it was ceremoniously unveiledto enormous acclaim; Arthur Miller called it "one of the most beautiful wall paintings in America" in the L.A. Times. One year later, the school building was taken over by the Los Angeles Board of Education for a new administrative headquarters, and the mural was stripped from the wall as the room was converted to offices.Enraged, Jasmine Britton threatened the School Board with a well–publicized public scandal. They agreed to transfer the mural, and a new home was found for it at Sutter Junior High School in the San Fernando Valley — but the enormous painting had been badly damaged in the course of its careless removal and storage. A further two years of work was required to restore the art in its new setting — a blow from which Kay’s health, fragile at that time, never fully recovered. When the restorations were complete,he went on to a new commission — a splendid altar painting for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. After this, however, it was six long years before he received another commission
In the late 1940s, lacking all prospect of work, the Nielsens returned to Denmark, though life there was to be quite different from what they had known before. Where Kay had once been a celebrity, followed everywhere by the media, now he was aging, his work was obscure, and their country house, though charming, was also rustic and bitterly cold. Kay spent dark winter days wrapped in blankets, attempting to paint, as his health grew worse. By the 1950s, the Nielsens were back in the cottage in California once more — where good fortuneappeared once again in the form of another Britton sister, Helen Britton Holland, who arranged for Kay to receive a mural commission from Whitman College. It was the last major painting he would ever complete — for over the next several years his cough worsened, his frame grew thinner and thinner, and in 1957 he died quietly at home at the age of sixty–nine. Ulla made no pretense of wanting to go on with life now that her Kay was gone, and she died just thirteen months later of complications from diabetes. Neither knew that a revivalof Kay’s life work was soon about to begin.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Kay’s fairy tale paintings were rediscovered as part of a general cultural reappraisal of Victorian fairy art, Pre–Raphaelite art, and Golden Age book illustration. In the latter group, Nielsen’s art was ranked once again alongside Rackham’s and Dulac’s as the finest of the age. In America and England, Kay’s pictures appeared on notecards, posters, and calendars, and facsimile editions of his various fairy tale volumes soon followed after. In the 1970s, Peacock Press, under the visionary directionof Ian and Betty Ballantine (who were instrumental in popularizing Tolkien’s books in America) presented a series of trade paperback volumes honoring the works of Golden Age illustrators. Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin, was published in 1975, followed up by The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen (featuring the artist’s Arabian Nights paintings) in 1977. Since then, Kay’s work has become beloved by fans of fairy tale fiction and illustration all around the world,and a new generation of mythic artists are now as inspired by the art of Kay Nielsen as he was once inspired by Beardsley.
"Though naturally conversant with the historic advances of painting in the twentieth century," writes Hildegarde Flanner, "he remained aloof from the times in his work. Excelling in the lyrical and poetical was the ideal that absorbed him and he made no effort to modernize the subject-matter that had governed his style." Today, we can only be grateful for the artist’s devotion to "the lyrical and poetical." He maintained his own unique vision to the end, leaving his wondrous pictures as gifts to the future. I hope somewhere that his spirit, and Ulla’s,knows just how much we treasure them now.