Long-Lost Watercolors Of '1001 Nights' Bring New Life To Age-Old Tales

Oct 22, 2018
Originally published on October 22, 2018 8:15 am

In the early 20th century, artists experimented with color and less realistic dimensions, and mixed the worlds of Eastern and Western mythologies. Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen, working in Europe during World War I, finished his own evocative version of A Thousand and One Nights. His mysticism-tinted take on the Arabian stories pushed visual storytelling to new heights.

Nielsen filled his illustrations with expressionist, nearly surrealist characters and whimsical landscapes, breaking the boundaries of what visual storytelling was supposed to look like. His use of bright reds and deep blues, of golden leaves and detailed floral elements, hinted at a mix of Asian folklore and Arab iconography, make of his work a revolutionary body of visual art.

But the illustrations were never published, and the watercolor images remained tucked away for more than 40 years. They were rescued from oblivion after Nielsen's death in 1957 and sat unused for another 60 — until now.

This original watercolor is from "The Story of King Schahriyar and His Brother Schahzena" and shows a genie releasing a beautiful woman from a chest.
Courtesy of TASCHEN
This original watercolor is from "The Overseer's Tale" and shows a young woman and her secret treasure chests.
Courtesy of TASCHEN

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nielsen's work, Taschen published all 21 of his original illustrations, reproduced directly from the never-before-seen original watercolors.

The extra-large coffee table book delivers an experience of its own — the prints are meticulously curated and presented in a blue velvet box, as if the book itself was a tale to unveil.

NPR's Laura Beltran Villamizar talked to Noël Daniel, the editor of the book, about the watercolor illustrations and the birth of the special book.

The cover of Kay Nielsen's A Thousand and One Nights.
Courtesy of TASCHEN
This original watercolor is from "The Tale of the Third Old Man" and shows an adulteress and her lover.
Courtesy of TASCHEN

This is an extraordinary publication that honors the work of a forgotten visual artist. Did you ever consider exhibiting the art (instead of publishing it in book form)?

This artwork was always intended by the artist to be part of a book. We had a dilemma: Do we take these 21 originals and recreate the original book of 1001 Nights tales that Nielsen was working on back in 1919? The original text was a long Danish translation of the 1001 Nights tales.

The images would have been dwarfed by the scope of the manuscript, and there are many excellent translations already on the market. Instead, we decided to highlight the artwork itself by making prints in 5 colors (including gold) at a size that would best approximate the originals. We wanted to bring the originals to life in the size that Kay Nielsen would have painted them.

This has never been done before with Kay Nielsen's work, as originals of his work are so rare. We wanted to deliver the experience of the originals in a little portable mini-gallery: our oversized box with the prints and book within.

Kay Nielsen's A Thousand and One Nights Noel Daniel, Cynthia Burlingham, Margaret Sironval, Colin White.
Courtesy of TASCHEN
This original watercolor is from "The Tale of the Third Dervish" about the shipwrecked son of a king who meets a majestic bird.
Courtesy of TASCHEN
The collection includes a book of essays adding context to Nielsen's illustrations.
Courtesy of TASCHEN

Kay Nielsen was a devoted illustrator of books, and was one of the early 20th-century's most famous and beloved book illustrators. He worked London — the seat of some of the mightiest publishing houses in the world at the time.

The publishing houses often worked hand–in–hand with London's powerful art galleries, and they would often time the release of a book with an exhibition of the originals. Artists' livelihoods depended on the eventual sale of the original artworks in London's art galleries to collectors. It sends shudders down my spine to think of all the incredible complete sets of original book illustrations that were sold in this manner, and thereby immediately dispersed privately. In many cases, the artworks' whereabouts have been lost.

This original watercolor is from "The Tale of the Eldest of Three Ladies From Baghdad" showing the inhabitants of a palace who have been turned to stone.
Courtesy of TASCHEN

With regards to Nielsen's 1001 Nights book that never was published, we do not know exactly how large these images were going to be reproduced because the book never happened due to World War I. We assume that these images would have likely not been reproduced larger than 7 or 8 inches square. This was due to the great expense of publishing illustrated books in color at the time. We wanted to create a portfolio of art prints in their original size, about 16.5 by 16.5 inches, and deliver this to readers to hang on their own walls at home if they desired.

The book mirrors the colors that Nielsen used in his art: the rich, twilight-blue velvet-like material used for the cover, and the bright red envelope that holds the prints. Can you tell me a bit about the design of the book?

We wanted the box to be like a treasure box, with the prints carefully wrapped inside, but also a book with more essays about the work to augment the history and production of Nielsen's only surviving complete set of artworks.

Nielsen kept these artworks in a wooden box for decades; they travelled with him halfway around the world from London to Los Angeles when he came to work for Disney in the 1930s. They were recovered in the 1950s by devoted neighbors after he and his wife died, when the entire contents of their home were dispersed in an estate sale.

The prints have been on the move for a long time. We wanted to create a new home for them that paid homage to their plight while also celebrated them.

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