ASK any Finn of their fondest childhood memory, and it is likely to involve the Moomins in some way. The affable, hippopotamusesque little trolls adorn collectible mugs, confectionaries, linens and anything worth branding, but they are also a key part of their native Finland’s national identity and cultural consciousness. For Tove Jansson, their creator, what started as a way to escape the horror and anxiety of the second world war turned into an accidental empire. A new retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery—the first major show of her work in Britain—reveals the full breadth of her artistic output.
Many of the pieces on display have never been exhibited outside Finland. A prolific painter, illustrator and caricaturist, Jansson built her worlds in her attic studio in central Helsinki or in her cottage on the island of Klovharu in the Gulf of Finland. The show opens with her early self-portraits as a young woman in the 1940s. Drawn to the vibrant aesthetic of Matisse and other impressionists, she was skilled at using colour and strong lines. In “Smoking Girl”, she looks away into the distance, taking one long drag on a cigarette, cool and defiant. In “Lynx Boa” (below) she adopts a sly, feline gaze. Born to a family of artists, and growing up amid sacks of plaster cast and paint, Jansson felt that art was her birth right.
She supported her less profitable painting career with illustrations. One particularly fruitful collaboration was with Garm, a Swedish-language satirical magazine, which Jansson began contributing to aged 15. Some of her most notorious war-time covers for the magazine are on display. While Finland was swept by a nationalistic wave, Jansson revelled in mocking authoritarian regimes of all kinds, and stripping Hitler and Stalin of their symbols of power. In one cover from 1938, she depicts Hitler as a greedy toddler, crying for a bigger piece of Europe. She was criticised, threatened with litigation and censored. It is in these Garm covers that we see the prototypes of what would later evolve into the Moomins: Jansson would hide little long-snouted “snorks” in her covers like Easter eggs.
The first Moomin book was published in Swedish in 1945, and in English five years later. They were meant to be a distraction from the war, and to evoke the joy and freedom of youth. But the cute beasties weren’t an overnight success—Jansson only started gaining international traction when the Evening News in London, what was then the biggest evening newspaper in the world, started publishing a regular Moomin comic strip in the 1950s. On display are some of these original strips, thought to have been destroyed or lost over the decades, but rediscovered by accident in 2016 from the British Cartoon Archive. The exhibition depicts the various incarnations of Jansson’s signature style, from illustrations for Swedish editions of “The Hobbit” and “Alice in Wonderland” to early drafts of her most famous books. In later years, when the Moomin world kept growing, she would draw them into board games, posters for plays and public service announcements.
To know the Moomins was to know Tove. She poured her wit, dreams and fears into the characters: the adventure-loving Moomintroll, who always returns to the comfort of his home and family, the feisty and outspoken Little My, and the hard-working and diligent Hemulens were all permutations of Jansson’s personality. She wanted to include themes of tolerance and inclusiveness in her work. The inseparable Thingumy and Bob are modelled after Jansson and Vivica Bandler, a great love. The two near-identical characters held hands everywhere they went, speaking their own secret language and carrying a suitcase protecting a ruby—a symbol for their hidden love. Jansson took a risk knowingly, as homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971.
The Moomins soon consumed all her time, leaving little of it to paint. She handed over the comic strip to her brother, Lars, to focus on art and writing prose (Jansson held several painting exhibitions, but she was seen first and foremost as the creator of the Moomins). As their popularity around the world grew, so did her burden. Her last painting, a self-portrait, is from 1975: she called it the “ugly one”. Born of a moment of writer’s block, the painting depicts a very different kind of woman. Tired, older, but free, expressive and self-secure.
What is evident in Tove Jansson’s life and work is her defiance. She resisted the norms of the times, the regimes of the times, and in the end, even her most famous creation. Jansson took life head on, using her art and her Moomin trolls to decipher what was going on around her. As Too-Ticky (a character based on Tuulikki Pietila, Jansson’s partner) says in “Moominland Midwinter”: “All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”