When I was in college (many years ago), I took a couple of Art History courses my freshman year and found myself smitten, and though I had no plans to pursue a career in it, by the end of four years I had taken enough classes to earn a minor. It’s funny, I don’t know where and when my passion for art went missing, but looking back, I clearly remember having it – the excitement of going to New York City to the museums as part of a bus trip that my professor arranged on a couple of occasions, and the writing assignments she gave us while there – and I can pinpoint exactly when it first started: in childhood, when I stared at a Dutch marine landscape painting of boats at my grandmother’s house every time I visited her. I was transfixed by the way the ripples of water were portrayed in that painting, in undulating hues of blue, lavender and dark gray: colors that had never before been coupled to the notion of water in my young mind, yet seemed to speak of it so ingeniously. I must have asked a lot of questions about that painting, because my grandmother made it a point thereafter to give me books and articles about artists, encouraging me to read not only about Michelangelo, who was my clear favorite at the time, but also to explore folk artists like Grandma Moses. (In regard to the latter, I should mention that my grandmother was probably influenced in this choice by the nation’s stylish First Lady at the time – Jacqueline Kennedy – who decorated some of the White House walls with the art of Grandma Moses, but I think the work actually excited her, as my grandmother wasn’t the kind of person who endorsed something based on celebrity.)
These days, I find I could care less about going to museums, and though that might sound sad and depressing, or closed-minded and provincial (your pick), I think it’s more a matter of finally having arrived at an age where know what art speaks to me, on a very personal level. The art I love today can’t be found in museums, for what I love most is fairy tale illustrations of a certain age, and the artist who has been my favorite for the past twenty years is the Danish artist Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), whose work pictured here in this post is one of many he did for East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a book of Nordic fairy tales originally published in 1914 and recently re-published by a publishing firm called Taschen in Germany). I love the richness of detail, but until recently I couldn’t say exactly why I find his work so utterly captivating – and now I know. It’s that there is a story within the art, and the story is evident even if you’ve never read the fairy tale that it was intended to accompany. It adds dimension to the art – it gives it life. Kay Nielsen’s works pulsate … they vibrate with life, even as there is also, at the same time, a sense of elegant stillness and wonder about them. His work isn’t part of an art “movement” – it doesn’t make a political or social or cultural statement. Instead it brings flesh and cinema to the pages of a book, and in doing so, it has a story encapsulated within it that allows it to live on its own, beyond the page.