Tove Jansson: More than Moomins

The year 2017 will bring the work of Tove Jansson – Finnish painter, writer, illustrator, comic strip artist and creator of the internationally famed Moomin family – to London in two major exhibitions. The Adventures in Moominland opens in the Southbank Centre this December, and in the autumn 2017 the Dulwich Picture Gallery brings an exhibition of Jansson’s paintings and graphic illustrations to the UK for the first time. What better time to contemplate the mysterious lady behind the moomins?

Tove Marika Jansson was born in 1914 into a family of artists in Helsinki. Her father, Viktor Jansson, was a sculptor, her mother Signe Hammarsten Jansson a graphic artist, her brother Per Olof a photographer and the youngest of the siblings Lars a writer who also later became a Moomin illustrator. Tove’s passion was for painting, and she began her art studies at the age of 16, first in Stockholm and then at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki.

Young Tove also spent periods of study in Paris where she became well acquainted with 1900s French Modernism that greatly influenced her work: her masterful, sensual use of colour and lines resonates especially with Henri Matisse’s school of thought. In the 1930s, Tove was inspired by surrealism, and her ornamental and fantastical landscapes from this period are full of references to the later Moomin illustrations. There is a certain magical element constantly present in her art, counterbalancing the realism and rationality that prevails in the work of many of her contemporaries.

In November 1939, the Finnish Winter War began. Wartime was difficult for Tove, and it was tearing her close-knit family apart. Her constant worry for her brother Per Olof in the frontline as well as the frictions within the family had a profound impact on her work and are detectible in her paintings from this period, such as Family (1941). In the early 1940s, Jansson felt so desolate that she started writing fairy tales to escape the bleakness of wartime: the result was what we now know as stories from the Moominvalley. During the Continuation War (1941-44), Jansson took up a small attic studio in the central Helsinki which, despite the constant air raids, became a true artistic sanctuary for her. It was around this time she also met her life partner, graphic artist and professor Tuulikki Pietilä, who had her studio nearby.

With the Moomins, Jansson sought to create ‘something innocent’ – a brief respite from the wretchedness of the war – but escapist art was not her only outlet: she also produced regular comic strips for the Finnish satirical magazine Garm, ridiculing Adolf Hitler and other instantly recognisable Nazi figures. And even in the idyllic Moominvalley the echoes of the war and living in constant fear are clearly detectable: in the first three Moomin novels, the story is set in motion by an external force that threatens to destroy the valley or tear the family apart – a great flood, a comet, or a mysterious Magician’s Hat with fearful powers of transformation.

The Moomins quickly sprung into international fame: the first book was published in 1945 and an English translation came out the same year. The main series of Moomin comic strips were produced directly for the British market: the London Evening News published weekly strips from 1945 up until 1975. By the 1950s, tens of millions were reading the books and comics, and the Moomin project took more and more of Jansson’s time. She was frustrated that her artistic identity was repeatedly reduced to that of ‘the mother of Moomins’. In 1961 her brother Lars took over the production of comic strips, which allowed her to focus more on painting and other writing projects.

Jansson and Pietilä spent their summers on a tiny island of Klovharu in the archipelago of the Gulf of Finland. The island was a perfect haven away from Jansson’s growing fame and offered the two artists harmonious conditions for working and living together, surrounded by the sea they both loved. They also travelled around the world, always documenting their journeys on film.

In her painting, Jansson kept producing cityscapes and landscapes throughout the 1950s, finding inspiration in the city and beaches of Helsinki. In the 1960s, her work was influenced by Informalism –  a pictorial style dominated by spontaneity and nonexistence of preconceived ideas. Some of Jansson’s work from this period is completely abstract, but she also kept painting the sea and still-lives, as well as a series of arresting self-portraits which will be exhibited in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The last Moomin book November in Moominvalley came out in 1970, after which Jansson went on to publish her main work for adult readership. The best known and most widely translated books are the short story collection The Listener (1971) and the novel The Summerbook (1972). Jansson wrote four more novels and six other short story collections. She died in June 2001 at the age of 86.

Tove Jansson: More than MoominsThe Moomins, from the 1990–91 television animation.

While it is high time Tove Jansson is recognised as more than just the creator of the Moomins, one further word to those who are familiar with Moominvalley only through the Japanese animation version from the 1990s: the animations do not retain, neither in terms of illustrations nor storyline, the beautiful complexity of the original books and comic strips. If you want to fully appreciate Jansson’s legacy, seek out the originals – they speak to an adult reader just as loudly as to a child, and are full of psychological and philosophical ingenuity, socio-political quips and plenty of witty humour.

The main message of Jansson’s work, for children and adults alike, is to look beyond the surface and embrace diversity. As Sointu Fritze – the lead curator for the forthcoming exhibition at Dulwich – puts it: “Jansson’s entire oeuvre and way of thinking are characterised by the acceptance of differences.” Her art sends out a pertinent message to the world of today and celebrates the power of art to teach tolerance without being moralistic.

The Adventures in Moominland exhibition at Southbank Centre is on from 16 December 2016 to 23 April 2017. The exhibition in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South-East London will be running from 25 October 2017 to 28 January 2018.

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