"Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales" - the Tragic Death of the Swedish illustrator and painter John Bauer

20 November 1918, the Swedish illustrator and painter John Bauer died in a ferry accident on Lake Vattern together with his family at the age of 36.

“Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.” (Friedrich Schiller)

John Bauer - Illustration of Walter Stenström's The boy and the trolls or
The Adventure in childrens' anthology Among pixies and trolls, a collection of childrens' stories, 1915 (wikipedia)

When Medieval illuminations gave way to illustrations with the advent of the printing press and woodblocks replaced scriptoria full of copying monks, the concept of pictures emphasising or explaining text became an art form over the following centuries, usually bound to the printed medium, congeneric but quite distinct from other visual arts. Technical progress in terms of reproducing pictures allowed for a far more sophisticated expression and detail, first the copper print, then, during the 18th century, etchings, mezzo- and aquatints and finally wood and steel engravings and lithographic procedures, furthering the industrial production of illustrated books as well as mass media. And while Hogarth, Cruikshank, Daumier and others developed storytelling sets of pictures in their own right and highly detailed scientific illustrations became available, the interest in congenial illustrations of poetry and fiction grew. The Romantic movement caused a never before seen rise in illustrations of the simultaneously collected legends, myths and fairy tales and by mid-19th century a new genre of books was finally established: 
picture books for children. As well as a golden age of illustrations, certainly headed by otherwise renowned artists like Adolph von Menzel, Delacroix and Doré – and some who were famous solely as illustrators, like Bilibin, Dulac, Rackham and John Bauer.

John Bauer - Illustration for "Pojken och trollen eller Äventyret"
(The boy and the trolls or The Adventure) by Walter Stenström in "Bland tomtar och troll"
(Among gnomes and trolls), 1915.

John Bauer was born in 1882 as the son of German immigrants in Jönköping, already began to draw when he was still a child himself and finally managed to get admitted to the Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Academy of Arts at the age of 18. He met his future wife Ester there, graduated and became Sweden’s best known illustrator of fairy tales when he was offered the job as lead artist of the popular folklore and fairy tales annual “Bland tomtar och troll” (more or less “among household spirits and trolls”), published to this day, and while Ester modelled as his fairy princess and his son Bengt was born, his life seemed like a fairy tale all by itself. It unfortunately wasn’t. Bauer suffered from depressions, finally his marriage was about to fall apart and when the troubled family returned from their vacation in Norrköping by steamer because the train route saw the worst railway disaster in Swedish history just six weeks before, the ferry sank and the three Bauers drowned.

John Bauer: Goddess Freyja and the transformed Svipdag from
"Our Fathers' Godsaga" by Viktor Rydberg (1911)

With his skill to capture the essence of a story or a scene and arrange it into a well composed view, John Bauer is on an equal footing with the best artists of the Golden Age of Illustrations during the late 19th and early 20th century. The imagination of how a fairy-tale creature is supposed to look like and how to fulfil the expectations of readers and viewers was certainly cross-fertilized with the works of other famous international illustrators, but Bauer stands out with giving his supposedly fearsome creatures a tender, dreamlike and likeable appearance. With high artistic skill that he became a pace-setter for depicting the fantastic in art and still is unrivalled in his approach to crystallise imagination into a tenderly humorous and ambiguously unique creation. It might be that he would be far more popular if he had been from the English- or French-speaking world, but the Swedish artist was capable to condense his own rich cultural background into something outstandingly enchanting.

John Bauer: "Julbocken" (1912)

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