Fantasy enchants, carrying us off into dream worlds that stir our darkest fears and sharpest longings. Two new exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts approach the fantastic from different angles.
“Kay Nielsen’s Enchanted Vision: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection” spotlights the great Danish illustrator best known for “East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Old Tales From the North,” a collection of Norse fairy tales originally published in 1914. Nielsen, the son of a stage director and an actress, grew up near theater’s imagined worlds. He had a strong muscle for fantasy, and his watercolor and pen-and-ink works slide deliciously and effortlessly into that realm.
“Make Believe,” in the adjoining gallery, invites reality into the picture. The contemporary photography exhibition plays with viewers’ frequent and increasingly wrong-headed tendency to assume photographs represent the real world. In this show, elaborately staged images have the whiff of fact simply because they’re photographs. That tension brings the ache of their tales closer to the surface. They’re driven by a bittersweet awareness akin to “it was only a dream.”
Let’s start with Nielsen, a star of the so-called Golden Age of Illustration, when technological innovations in printing made color picture books sumptuous, and publishers issued luxury editions with illustrations to swim in. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” had such a debut, and was reprinted over the years, most recently in a splendid edition by Taschen in 2015.
But Nielsen’s career followed a rocky path.
Born in 1886, he had a meteoric rise as a young artist, until World War I doused the market for fancy illustrated books. He made a comeback in the 1920s, but soon tastes moved away from his fantasy worlds. In his lifetime, Nielsen published only five books. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and worked for Disney, notably on the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” segments in “Fantasia.” But he died in obscurity in 1957.
This exhibition, featuring nearly 50 works promised to the museum by the Daniels, marks the first time in more than 60 years that a significant collection of Nielsen’s illustrations has been on view in the US.
The MFA’s curator of design, Meghan Melvin, charts Nielsen’s career from its beginnings at art school in Paris, where in 1910 he crafted “The Book of Death,” a series of portentous black-and-white drawings that touched on somber motifs he would revisit throughout his career. It also defined his signature style: willowy and balletic figures, theatrical compositions, vaulting gestures, and an exquisite touch for detail and texture.
“The Book of Death” caught the eye of a London gallery. He had a show and was on the path to publication. His first book, “In Powder and Crinoline, Old Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,” came out in 1913.
An illustration from that book, from the tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” depicts a sinister dark-skinned page offering a potion to a dashing young man at a ball. A princess, bouffant hair and flowery dress flowing behind her, pleads with him not to drink. It’s a striking image to today’s eyes. The hero, with flowing locks, shapely legs, and high heels, appears nonbinary. The only person of color is a leering villain.
Nielsen brought elements of Japanese woodblock prints, Persian miniatures, and fashion illustration to his work. Asian influences propel some of his illustrations in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” In one, a knight discovers three princesses buried up to their necks. A craggy mountain topped by a gnarly tree looms above them, as in a Chinese scroll painting.
The synergy with fashion — the elegant drape of fabric, the lithe figures — hasn’t left Nielsen’s work; in 2016 Karl Lagerfeld launched a “Legends and Fairytales” collection, which included a dress inspired by this same illustration, the great mountain rising up the skirt and scooping around the waist.
It’s a tribute to Nielsen’s graceful lines; he knew how to pull the eye around the page, and how to build with his pen and pigments a space that opened to magical worlds. He brought the conflicted, fierce, and tender world of fairy tales to life.
Enchantment has larger implications in “Make Believe,” organized by Karen Haas, the museum’s curator of photographs. Photography can bewitch us into believing what we see, which nobody older than 6 or 7 would do with a Nielsen illustration. Artists here capitalize on the emotional tension between illusion and disillusion, innocence and knowledge.
Hellen van Meene examines that dynamic in adolescent girls, crafting fairy-tale scenes with young women playing lost and brooding heroines. In “Untitled #465,” a sleeping beauty levitates above a sofa, at once lost, cursed, and enchanted. Shadi Ghadirian refers to a Persian folktale about a noble butterfly and an evil spider in her photographs, in which women are the butterflies trapped by the restrictions of Iranian society.
Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick write and stage elaborate historical narratives. “King of the Birds” is part of an epic story about climate change, economics, and human weakness. The king, covered in birds, looks godlike. But power is capricious.
Playing up the artifice of his art in melancholy photographs of himself and his young son, Paolo Ventura shot “The Magician” on a low-rent stage set. In a succession of images, a magician father executes a trick and loses his boy. That undertow of loss tugs at all the images in “Make Believe,” which celebrates the delectable transports of fantasy and then returns us with a bump to solid ground.
KAY NIELSEN’S ENCHANTED VISION: THE KENDRA AND ALLAN DANIEL COLLECTION
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 20. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org