Immersive Moomin Exhibit Opens in the UK!

“UK's first major Moomin exhibition set to open in London” / The New York Times / Hettie Judah / December 16, 2016

During her lifetime, the artist, author and cartoonist Tove Jansson earned fame far beyond her native Finland for her children’s books featuring the Moomins, a race of hippo-like, bulbous-nosed creatures driven by abundant curiosity. Their intrepid exploits, as well as Jansson’s formidable inventiveness, inform the spirit of the exhibition “Adventures in Moominland,” which opens tomorrow at London’s Southbank Centre.

Each gallery in the show is like a page in a picture book — a fully realized piece of fantasy, from a kerosene-scented beach hut to a snow-banked Nordic forest — and visitors to the exhibition move from room to room through hidden doors and secret entrances. Jansson’s original illustrations and sketches are exhibited like concealed treasures, hidden away in wheelbarrows, picnic hampers and ice caves. Like everything here, they are diminutive in scale. We are intruders in another world: Everything is sized appropriately to Moominland (which is, coincidentally, similar in scale to 7-year-old-child-land).

These compact dimensions are emblematic of Jansson’s own attentiveness and precision. The tiny sketches and illustrations are much in keeping with the world that she constructed around herself, including her one-room summer cabin on the rocky outcrop of Klovharun (to call it an island seems a stretch) in the Finnish archipelago. “That island looks so small when you see it!” agrees Jansson’s niece Sophia Jansson, who — since Tove died in 2001 — has been involved in preserving her aunt’s legacy. “You think, ‘How can they live there for three months?’ But it’s much bigger when you’re there; it’s a whole world!”

Growing up, Sophia too was part of that “world” created by Jansson, and inspired the character that shares her name in “The Summer Book” (1972), her aunt’s first work of fiction for adults. Tove Jansson’s influence has affected her in “every single way,” she says. “Without knowing it, of course the Jansson family gave me the fundamental ideas about how I wanted to live: It was a very friendly, considerate, humane way of living, and it was secure and adventurous — all the things you find in the books.”

As well as providing rich material for her closely observed fantasy worlds, life on the tiny rocky island offered Jansson a protected haven in which to live with her partner, Tuulikki Pietila, at a time when same-sex relationships remained illegal, even in liberal Finland. Jansson’s love for Pietila, and the impact it had on her life, is explored with great affection in the exhibition. Pietila — who was known as Tooti — inspired the character Too-ticky, who teaches Moomintroll to ski and cook, just as Pietila had taught Jansson.

The earliest Moomin books were written during and immediately after the Second World War, and have a notably darker sensibility. Then working as an artist and illustrator, Jansson had felt unable to paint, worrying that beautiful colors and pictures were somehow out of place. Thus evolved the world of the Moomins, whose appearance was based on a childhood monster tamed by her imagination. Comic as they were in appearance, over the course of their books, the Moomins work through tribulations common to creatures of all ages. As well as romantic love, Jansson lead them through fear, threat, the need for secrecy, the importance of a sense of purpose, and of acceptance and respect.

“Her personal life and her art were very intertwined: You can’t really separate them,” explains Sophia Jansson. “She mirrored her own a reality onto a fictional reality.” And this is perhaps the nub of the Moomin’s enduring appeal: a combination of adventuresome spirit and philosophy, all of which Jansson derived from close and patient observation, of human relationships and of the natural world alike.

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