Beautiful Vintage Illustrations for Scheherazade’s Stories and Scandinavian Fairy Tales by Swedish Modernist Pioneer GAN
A visionary reimagining of beloved storytelling by the Oscar Wilde of the Scandinavian art world.
By Maria Popova
Around the time Kay Nielsen was producing his extraordinary early-twentieth-century illustrations for Scandinavian fairy tales and Arthur Rackham was revolutionizing the Brothers Grimm, an artist far less remembered but no less gifted and visionary was reimagining some of humanity’s most beloved storytelling. In the late 1910s, the painter Gösta Adrian-Nilsson, better known as GAN (April 2, 1884–March 29, 1965) — a pioneer of Swedish modernist art — turned his imaginative eye to the stories of Scheherazade and a selection of Swedish folk tales.
A dandy, artist, and radical writer in his youth, GAN was the Scandinavian Oscar Wilde — a comparison that would have gladdened him, for he admired Wilde greatly. But GAN was arguably even more culturally defiant than his British counterpart: Wilde, after all, was married to a woman despite his greatest love being a man; GAN, on the other hand, was an openly gay man in the early twentieth century, which lent him the kind of outsiderdom that a great deal of groundbreaking creative work has in common as its wellspring.
Tinged with futurism and cubism, GAN’s modernist art emanates an air of protest against outmoded norms, both aesthetic and cultural. And yet it is also laced with a certain irreverent respect for tradition — nowhere more so than in his paintings for fairy tales and folkloric storytelling, which depict violent, subversive, and sexually charged scenes in the aesthetic of religious illuminated manuscripts.
Like Maurice Sendak, GAN bequeathed his estate to his housekeeper, Lilly Johansson. After his death, she transferred his personal papers to the University Library at his hometown of Lund, where they are currently housed and available to scholars.
Complement with Aubrey Beardsley’s stunning 1893 illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome and the most beautiful illustrations from 200 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Images via Katia Lexx
Published May 24, 2016