Beautifully blonde or enchantingly ugly : re-imagining the Swedish nation through text and image in the illustrated fairy tale annual Bland tomtar och troll (Amongst gnomes and trolls)
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Much like oft-repeated quotes or catchy movie soundtrack tunes, famous illustrations often outweigh and outlast their original contexts and establish themselves as iconic cultural reference points for generations to come. Over the last 100 years in Sweden, John Bauer’s fairy tale illustrations have maintained a strong grip on that nation’s popular imaginary through over thirty reprint editions, museum exhibits, stamp collections, and, of course, stylistic imitations. While their century-old narrative contexts remain relatively unknown and uninteresting to contemporary audiences, his beautifully blonde children, enchantingly ugly trolls, and stark, Swedish landscapes continue to be bought, sold, and validated as embodying a typically Swedish relationship to nature. Why John Bauer’s work has remained so influential over time while the publication they appeared in has faded is a question that many of his biographers have attempted to answer. Harald Schiller, the most thorough of these, claims that “when one sees [his] images in black and white or color, they capture one’s interest to such a degree that there is none left for the text” (152). This essay uses Schiller’s comment as a starting point to pose one answer to this question. By exploring the dynamic potential of the relationship between Bauer’s images and their early twentieth-century contexts, it locates the artist’s appeal over against his narrative guidelines and the historical movements of his time. To this end, its comparative analysis of the textual and visual narratives in the illustrated Swedish fairy tale annual, Bland tomtar och troll (Amongst Gnomes and Trolls) explores how the interplay between the historical pregnancy of its fairy tale stories and the Swedophilic affects of John Bauer’s illustrations contributes to the project of imagining and proliferating a new Swedish national identity at the beginning of the twentieth century.