Ahead of the Moomin creator’s first UK retrospective, Stephanie Hartman finds out why the Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson was cooler than every single one of us.
1. First up, she invented the Moomins
At the impressive age of 15, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was already producing caricatures and illustrations for political satire magazine Garm, and it was there in 1943 that the first semblance of a Moomintroll appeared, although she initially referred to it as a ‘Snork’. The long-snouted creature continued to pop up in future issues, and a couple of years later Jansson wrote and published her first Moomin story, ‘The Moomins and The Great Flood’, introducing the soft, white, rounded family and their gang of adventurous friends to the wider world. More books triggered global Moomin mania with TV adaptations, an adventure park and even a Moomin opera in the years to come.
2. She wore many hats
Although best known for the Moomins, Jansson’s vast output spanned adult novels, graphic illustration and painting, and it was important to her that she be recognised as a serious artist in addition to the creator of the valley-dwelling trolls. Her upcoming show sheds light on 150 works, largely unseen outside of Finland, including surrealist-inspired paintings, abstract pieces and self-portraits. A display of early character sketches and comic strips will also feature, so die-hard fans can get their Moomintroll fix too.
3. She championed LGBT+ life
When homosexuality was still illegal in Finland, Jansson had a whirlwind relationship with married theatre director Vivica Bandler. The secret affair crushed her but led to the creation of Thingumy and Bob, a tiny duo who were often found hand-in-hand speaking a secret language and hiding in small spaces. She later found her life partner in graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who also inspired a character: the inquisitive and optimistic Too-Ticky who would spend winters in the Moomin family’s bathhouse. The couple did not hide their relationship: they openly collaborated on projects and supported each other’s careers, making them one of Finland’s most prominent gay couples.
4. She spent her time in pretty amazing places
For nearly 30 years, Jansson and Pietilä spent their summers on the rocky, remote island of Klovharun in the Gulf of Finland, where they built a small cottage away from the mainland. During autumns and winters Jansson nestled into her top-floor Helsinki studio, where she both lived and worked. She was able to buy the studio after bagging a lucrative deal with the London Evening News paper to create a Moomin comic strip. Pietilä had a space in the same building, and the pair visited each other for dinner through a connecting attic passage. As you do.
5. She wasn’t scared of sharing her political beliefs
The work Jansson created for Garm often reflected her condemnation of war and provided an outlet for her fears and anxieties about the state of the world. Using sharp wit and a flick of her courageous pen, Jansson mocked both Hitler and Stalin on various occasions, once reducing the Führer to a whining, insufferable toddler on the front cover of the magazine in 1938. Her illustrations regularly defied Finland’s official policies but she never once opted for anonymity or distanced herself from the anti-Nazi imagery she created.