John Bauer was an illustrator from the district of Småland in southern Sweden. Småland is a beautiful place of woods and rocks and small streams, and the site of many a childrens tale (not least Emil i Lönnegerga). Its no great surprise to know that most of the creative genius of Sweden (within the parameters of fantastical childrens tales), arose from this area. It takes a special kind of person, born in a special kind of place to make the sort of magical tales and images Småland has produced. John Bauer appears to have been that kind of person. Although he only lived a short life, and although his fame is based on relatively few works (most specifically a book called 'Amongst Gnomes and Trolls'), his work tapped directly into the Scandinavian psyché (as it was around 1900).
Today, Bauers work, though still very out dated (its literally Victorian after all) still has that 'Scandinavian feel' that I like. The trolls, with their long hair and big noses are the archetypal Scandinavian trolls. The sort one finds in the old saga's living in the wilds; Magical and eccentric beings who grow bigger and stranger as they grow older until finally they fall asleep and and get mistaken for hills and mountains. Bauers images reflect the cold Scandinavian winters when the starlight shines above the trees and illuminates a world that no longer seems a place where men belong. These are just children's illustrations, but they echo deeper feelings that resonate within me. Its been a long while since I walked through a Danish forest at night (and even longer since I walked through a Swedish forest at night), far from the warmth and predictability of civilisation, and although Denmark in the 1990's was a very different place to Sweden in the 1900's, the dark night still brings the sense of possibility. When you walk through the absolute quiet with your breath fogging around you and the undergrowth scraping against your clothes, you suddenly pause and find yourself alone in a darkness, gravid with suggestion. The shadows could easily be trolls and gnomes, creatures of great power and mystery. Its not hard to feel the sense of possibility that must have seemed like probability to so many Scandinavians back through history.
I sometimes wonder, those people, living in the darkness of their own fertile imaginations, were they better off than we are today or were adults then just as they are today? There was a time when I lived in a world of my own imagnation, filled with mystery's and wonder and even fear, and it seems, looking back on it, that it was a far better place than the drab monotony of adulthood. As Calvin once tells Hobbes, 'childhood is brief and maturity lasts for ever'.
John Bauer at Art Passions
John Bauer at Project Runeberg
John Bauer at Wikipedia