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Tove Jansson: Beyond Moomin Valley

Valerie Waterhouse By Valerie Waterhouse Published on June 20, 2017
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Finnish artist and writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomintrolls. But her range as a writer and artist extended far beyond children’s books. As an itinerant exhibition heading for Copenhagen, Denmark and London, UK points out, she was also an expert cartoonist, political satirist and one of Finland’s foremost exponents of Modernist art. In later years, she wrote twelve novels, memoirs and short story collections for adults, eight of which have been translated into English by independent publisher Sort Of Books.

I caught up with the exhibition—on tour since 2014—in Gothenburg, Sweden, last month. A Moomintroll fan since childhood, it sent me scurrying to read all the adult fiction I could find, immersing myself in Jansson’s wise yet quirky world view. The importance of family, personal freedom and nature run throughout her oeuvre, as these five artworks, and her fiction, show.

War, Peace & the Moomintrolls

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Jansson’s eight Moomintroll novels are mostly about friendly, hippo-like creatures, fond of boats, berries and all things shiny and magical. But a recent re-reading of Finn Family Moomintroll threw up details easily glossed over when very young. As a child, it seemed unremarkable, for instance, that the Hemulen was a transvestite botanist, ‘who always wore a dress that he had inherited from his aunt’. 

The first Moomintroll book, The Moomins and the Great Flood came out in Finland in 1945, (it wasn’t published in English until 2012). Her second, Comet in Moominland, appeared in 1946. A convinced pacifist, whose views were unpopular in Finland, writing for children provided Jansson with an escape from the trauma of war. Both books deal with an apocalyptic catastrophe, which the Moomintrolls narrowly manage to evade. In the above illustration, Moomintroll dives into the sea through ‘bubbles of green light’, past ‘forests of crinkly seaweed’, until he reaches a black, bottomless hole. Themes of darkness and light, fear and security, the unknown and familiar, run through all eight books.

Freedom & Family

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Jansson painted this family portrait in 1942, showing her mother, her father, sculptor Viktor Jansson, holding a Nazi newspaper, and her brothers, Per Olov and Lars, playing chess. The artist herself stands at the centre, dressed in sombre black. Per Olov, depicted here in uniform, had volunteered as a soldier, causing great distress to the family. Her parents and brothers were of utmost importance to Jansson, who remained close to them throughout their lives. Her first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) is a thinly disguised memoir, about a female child protagonist living with bohemian artist parents, who throw parties, survive snow storms and keep a pet monkey in the studio.

Despite their close physical proximity, the figures in this portrait are lost in their own thoughts, staring beyond the confines of the picture, in private worlds. Jansson’s literary works often deal with the contradictory needs for togetherness and solitude. A character in one of her later stories (The Pictures, in Letters From Klara, the most recent Jansson book to be translated into English), sums up the problem: ‘You want to be left in peace and still be with others. It can’t be done. Choose the one or the other, and which ever you choose you’re up the creek.’

Nature, Islands & the Sea

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The thick, lashing brushstrokes of this 1963 painting create an energetic representation of the wild, untamed Finnish Gulf. The sea was a great inspiration to Jansson, who spent many childhood summers on an island in the Finnish Archipelago. Later, she and her life partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, built a tiny home on the remote island of Klovharun, where they lived each summer, until their late seventies.

The sea plays a central role in The Summer Book, Jansson’s first novel for adults, published shortly after her mother’s death in 1972. The story of a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter on a wild Finnish island, it provided a channel for Jansson’s grief. Jansson's mother is reborn as the kind but rebellious old granny; while the little girl, who has recently lost her own mamma, displays troubled behaviour, which the grandmother deals with in her own wise way. Mostly though, it’s the story of two people at the extremes of life making the most of every day. All around is the sea, encouraging them to sail off on picnics, on a day when it is ‘smooth as oil’; or to take refuge on an island during a ‘great storm’ on a fishing trip. Together, they huddle in an abandoned house, while foam hisses  'against the rocks like the blows of a whip.’

Identity & Diversity

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It is a surprise to learn that this open-minded author’s favorite subject was herself. A serious artist, with Modernist ambitions, she created a series of self-portraits between the 1930s and 1970s, several of which are included in the show. Entitled Lynx Boa, this 1942 portrait depicts a green-eyed, cat-like Jansson, draped in an oversized lynx fur. There is a shocking wildness about the portrait, commenting obliquely on the relationship between humans and animals, their differences and similarities. Like this portrait, Jansson’s self-depictions were never just narcissistic ‘selfies’. Instead, they mapped a shifting and sometimes challenged identity. Jansson was part of a 6% minority of Swedish-speaking Finns, and in the 1940s she embarked upon her first lesbian affair, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Finland. Her famed tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other’ may, in fact, have sprung from constant self-examination. As Socrates stated: first, ‘Know Thyself’.

Jansson’s quest for self-knowledge through self-representation continued in her adult fiction. Her 1989 autobiographical novel, Fair Play, concerns Mari (Jansson) and Jonna (Pietilä), an older, female couple, who spend their summers on an island in the Finnish archipelago. They reappear in Pirate Rum, a short story in Letters from Klara, in which dreamy Mari/Jansson mollycoddles a young man who lands on their island in a storm, while practical Jonna/Pietilä gives him a boat-builder’s address – which she feels may come in handy, when he eventually matures.


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Jansson gave up painting to concentrate on writing in 1975, after creating two final portraits of herself. She termed this last piece the ‘ugly’ picture, using brutal black, red and ochre tones to underscore the effects of age. Contemporary photographs, however, show a toned, slender woman, with sleek greying hair who never became ‘ugly’, with full lips and eyes the colour of an Arctic sea.

At 61 years old, she was to produce eight more volumes of memoir and fiction, many of them dealing with old age. A compilation of previous works, A Winter Book contains one of her most moving stories, a memoir piece entitled Taking Leave, in which two old women say goodbye to their beloved island for the very last time. It ends with one of the women finding a kite in the cellar and taking it outside. ‘Just for fun she gave it a little push on its tail and a gust of wind came along and took the kite with it and it flew high, straight up, and continued far out across the Gulf of Finland.’ As Ali Smith writes in the introduction: ‘Its perfect final image of release allows this collection’ – and, one might add, Jansson’s life’s work – ‘to end on a real high.’

Pictures: Courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Upcoming Exhibitions

Art, Love & Moomins: GL Strand, Copenhagen, Denmark, until Sep 3 2017

Tove Jansson (1914-2001): Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, UK, Oct 25 2017-Jan 28 2018

Valerie Waterhouse is a journalist and editor based in Italy, mostly writing about travel and books. She is the editor of the guidebook Time Out Milan and recently wrote the afterword for The ... Show More


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