Tove Jansson: beyond Moominvalley

Art and auctions, Books, Events, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on October 26, 2017 at 9:01 PM

Jansson’s Keep Sweden Clean poster.

Tove Jansson: beyond Moominvalley

By James Brewer

Devotion to the oceans and to the cause of cleaner seas – such are among the many facets of an artist best known for her creation of the intriguing Moomin characters.

The lesser chronicled characteristics of Tove Jansson (1914-2001) are movingly brought out, alongside the Moomin story, in a new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. A visit is highly recommended.

In addition to authoring books about the vaguely hippopotamus-shaped Moomins, which gained a worldwide following after being featured in comic strips and animations, and which generated millions of Moomin coffee mugs, Tove wrote novels and short stories specifically with adult readers in mind. She was commissioned to paint murals for public buildings and restaurants, she illustrated stories by classic writers, and designed theatre sets and costumes.

Entering the Moominvalley — at Dulwich.

All along her humane outlook was to the fore. She was anti-war and a champion of social responsibility, anxious over the fragility of the environment: the first Moomin story was about a great flood that sweeps away the Moominpappa, who is fortunately rescued in due course.

She is perhaps the most popular cultural Finnish figure – after Sibelius, of course.

Dulwich has the first major UK retrospective (in a touring series recently seen in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Copenhagen, although the presentations have varied) of Tove Jansson, whose non-Moomin output of graphic illustration and painting is rarely seen and mentioned outside her home country.

Cover illustration for Garm magazine, 1944.

The exhibition bears the title of her name and lifespan, surely sufficient to attract crowds of enthusiasts and art lovers of all ages. In imaginative settings dreamt up by Dulwich’s own team, it comprises 150 works, covering her surrealist-inspired paintings of the 1930s and abstract work of the 1960s, her fierce anti-war cartoons, her book jacket designs, early sketches for the Moomin characters and original comic strips.

Tove Marika Jansson was born in Helsinki to the graphic artist Signe Hammarsten and the sculptor Viktor Jansson, with two brothers: Per Olov, still living, and Lars who died in 2000. It was a Swedish-speaking, liberal-minded household, and Tove wanted nothing more than to become a painter, a spirited choice of career in that era for a woman. Fortunately, she was encouraged by her parents to go ahead with that ambition.

Abstract Sea, 1963.

Spending summers as a child with her family in the Pellinki islands off Porvoo, east of Helsinki, Tove quickly came to love the sea. She was later to spend many summers with her partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä (1917–2009), on Klovharu, a rocky islet in the archipelago, and had a cottage built out of driftwood. She dreamed of owning an island and being keeper of a lighthouse.

She grew up in the years when the Finnish state and society was striving to create its identity after being freed from the domain of Russia. She studied art in Stockholm (where she saw a post-cubist and surrealist exhibition, although it is not known how much this influenced her) and Helsinki, and later in Paris.

It is a treat to see the early self-portraits, landscapes and still-life pieces. The curators say that although Tove worked with various media throughout her life, she always considered herself primarily a painter. Earlier in the 1930s she gave a hint of her skills to come in storytelling, evoking mystical and fairy-tale like atmospheres in her paintings such as Mysterious Landscape, from the 1930s. She was already drawing Moomin-like figures that were black and thin, with red eyes; the Moomin types for which she became famous are rounder and with friendlier mien.

Self-portraits from the 1930s and 1940s (and later) put her emotional states on display. The Smoking Girl from 1940 shows her as defiant and challenging; two years later in Lynx Boa (Self Portrait) the expression is softer and calmer, but still full of self-esteem.

Illustration for the book Comet in Moominland.

At the age of 15, her already formidable talent caught the attention of the editors of the Swedish-language satirical magazine Garm, and she went on to draw more than 500 caricatures and 100 cover images for them. Garm, founded in 1923, was named after the mythical Scandinavian black dog of hell.

Tove became one of the main illustrators and cartoonists for Garm. One of her political cartoons achieved note far beyond Finland. It shows Hitler as a crying baby in nappies, surrounded by Neville Chamberlain and other European leaders, trying to calm down the dictator with slices of cake – the slices being the territories of Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia. She had visited Berlin before the war and been alarmed to see shop windows displaying dolls giving the Hitler salute.

On the cover of one edition of the magazine in 1941 are Father Christmas and the angels shuddering at the wartime destruction in full flow on earth. Such cartoons, published openly under her name and underlining her staunch opposition to war, fascism and totalitarianism, courted punishment.

Tove Jansson swimming CPer Olov Jansson.

Some of her illustrations were censored, but as Garm was a small-circulation publication in a minority language, the authorities seemed to have largely left it alone, despite the prevailing animus in Finland against saying anything bad about Germany.

Despite the bombing of Helsinki in 1942, she took an attic studio in the centre of the city and here she created memorable work including her first story featuring the young character Moomintroll. She developed the first incarnation of Moomintroll in 1943 in a sketch for Garm as the long-snouted Snork. He would have cameo appearances as part of her cartoon signature or be plunged in the midst of the action.

The Moomin episodes have been interpreted as her attempt to escape the terror of war by creating a fairy-tale world in a happy, green valley where beings can lead a positive, carefree existence. Her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood was published in 1945, the first of 13 such stories. In one of them, Moomin and the Sea, Moominpappa is writing a great ocean novel.  In Moominpappa at Sea he is a scientist working on a dissertation about the sea.

The second Moomin book, Comet in Moominland, published just after the war, is another near-disaster saga, in effect a narrative of emerging from the doom-laden years.

Dulwich displays original illustrations for the books, and comic strips for the Finnish magazine, Ny Tid, and for the London Evening News, which when it commissioned work from her in 1954 was the world’s largest circulation evening newspaper.

Self-portrait, 1975.

The Moomins are said be based on members of Tove’s family, with Moominpappa and Moominmamma as portraits of her parents. She was especially close to her mother and the two often travelled together. The character Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter was named after Tuulikki Pietilä. Moomintroll and Little My (an independent little girl named after the Greek prefix micro and who is a friend of the Moomins) may be psychological self-portraits of the artist.

External and internal forces led to her taking breaks from painting – the outbreak of war in 1939, and at the end of the 1950s, when she was absorbed in her work with the Moomins.

Like many of her fellow countrymen, she came a little late to abstract art, and there are canvases here that are a cross with the figurative tradition. In 1963, she painted the stormy Abstract Sea. Two years on, she produced a canvas of weathered rocks, “the perfect vehicle through which to explore colour, tone and a more expressive way of painting.” Exhibition curator Sointu Fritze said: “The sea was her most beloved element.”

Comic strip Moomin on the Riviera, 1955.

After 1975, on publication of the Moomin picture book The Dangerous Journey, she returned once more to painting.

One of the posters she drew for the Keep Sweden Clean campaign in the 1970s shows a Moomin desperately trying to mop up bunker or cargo oil that has leaked from a cargoship. A favourite lighthouse motif is in the background (in one tale, Moominmamma paints murals on a lighthouse wall). These outstanding posters are from a private collection in Finland.

A roomful of posters and cartoons.

Early that decade, a short story collection called The Listener for adults was acclaimed.

When the Moomins first appeared on stage, Tove wrote the scripts, designed the sets and sometimes built and painted them, and designed the costumes. She illustrated children’s titles, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

Sophia Jansson, creative director of Moomin Characters and niece of Tove Jansson, said “She was incredibly productive and fearless in her way of doing things. I admire her as a courageous woman who stood up for equal rights. She is a role model for me in many ways…” Sointu quickly added: “She is a role model for many people.”

“She wants to confront the viewer in such a bold, and kind of take-me-on, attitude,” said Sophia. “It was hugely important to Tove that she be recognised as a talented fine artist in addition to being the creator of the Moomins. Balancing her painting and her other projects alongside the demands that the Moomins made of her was something she struggled with all her life. I’m delighted that Dulwich Picture Gallery is putting on this exhibition which will make Tove’s wider artistic output accessible to a UK audience, who may not yet be familiar with her work outside of Moominvalley.”

Sophia Jansson (left) and Sointu Fritze.

Sointu, who is chief curator of Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, said: “In Europe and the world today, Tove’s art and stories are more relevant than ever. Her entire oeuvre and way of thinking are characterised by the acceptance of differences. Although the family circle – both the artist’s own and the fictional Moomin family – is central, the door is always open for those seeking shelter. Tove Jansson’s works convey a profound understanding of human diversity.” Sointu noted that: “All through her life, travelling is one of her great inspirations.”

What was the biggest virtuosity of the custodian of the Moomins? It was definitely her line, insists Sointu, concurring with a range of other experts.

Tove’s partner Tuulikki Pietilä was a graphic artist and the two women collaborated on many projects, including three-dimensional Moomin figures and a model of the Moominhouse, with their physician friend Pentti Eistola. The house is now exhibited at the Moomin Museum in the Finnish city of Tampere.

Family, 1942.

The Moomin Museum was inaugurated at Tampere Hall, in the centre of the city, on June 17, 2017. The city’s close connection with the artist dates from 1986, when Tuulikki donated a valued collection of more than 1,000 drawings, 38 tableaux and archive material to Tampere Art Museum.

Tampere Art Museum displayed the collection in a mini-museum called Moominvalley from 1987 to 2016, after which with added artefacts it was transferred to its new permanent home at Tampere Hall. Monika Antikainen, curator of the new museum, was in London for the opening of the Dulwich show.

Moomin shows the way to Dulwich.

The Dulwich gallery exhibitions department have a field day in creating Moomin-themed walls and rooms, including a “snug” where visitors can relax on cushions and read Moomin stories.

The exhibition is organised by the Ateneum Art Museum, part of the Finnish National Gallery. Loans come from private and public collections including many from the Moomin Museum.

An excellent catalogue shines light on the life and work of the artist. Essays are contributed by Finnish art historian Tuula Karjalainen; Boel Westin, author of Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words; screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce (who writes that “the strangeness of the Moomin books is the strangeness of life itself”); and Paul Gravett, a writer and broadcaster who has been in comics publishing since 1981.

Moomin at loose in the gallery.

The firm Oy Moomin Characters Ltd is the owner, originator and official company responsible for supervising and managing the Moomins brand, copyright and registrations.

The company was started in 1958 by Tove Jansson and her brother Lars Jansson and today is run by family members. Sophia Jansson, daughter of Lars’s daughter and niece of Tove, is chairman and creative director.

Captions in detail:

Abstract Sea, 1963. Oil. Private collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen.

Illustration for the book Comet in Moominland, 1946. Wash and Indian ink. Moomin Museum, Tampere Art Museum Moominvalley Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen. ©Moomin Characters.

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait), 1974. Oil. Private collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis. © Estate of Tove Jansson.

Cover illustration for the magazine Garm, 1944. Tampere Art Museum Moominvalley. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis. ©Moomin Characters.

Comic strip Moomin on the Riviera, 1955. British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen.

Family, 1942. Oil. Private collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen.

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 28 January 2018. Details of the Moomin Museum in Tampere are at


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