19 December 2016


Tove Jansson, illustration from Moominland Midwinter (1957).
Photo: Finlands Nationalgalleri/Ainur Nasretdin. © Tove Jansson/Moomin Characters.

I started as a painter, and I am in some ways still a painter, and it was the holiest and most important of all things. And then suddenly when one makes an ugly figure with a large nose everyone starts clapping.

– Tove Jansson (1991)

Finn Family Jansson is gathered around a pernicious game of chess played with pieces red as blood. In the midst of the powerful tableau is the painter of the work – the Central Scrutiniser – in a black coat, mittens, a fur hat; a stern Modigliani face. The always exceptionally family-centred Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is the one who wants to walk away here. The parents’ studio at the Lallukka Artists’ Home in Helsinki is pictured like the submarine of Captain Nemo – a vexing atmosphere of art and fear. It is her younger brothers Lars and the uniformed Per Olov who play chess. In front of the mirror in this Renaissance composition is a fangy monstrosity in a vase, an unfamiliar flower creature, with Signe and Viktor on each side. The artist has written “Nazi” upside down in bold letters on the newspaper that her father is squeezing under his arm. Sointu Fritze – Chief Curator at Ateneum (part of the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki), the organising institution of the just wonderful Tove Jansson: Desire to Create and Live at Millesgården in Stockholm – points at The Family (1942): “Per Olov went to the front as a volunteer and the mother was outraged because she did not want to lose her son, and she looks very angrily at the father. Here of course you have parts of the Moomin family.”

“Tove sublimated her own difficulties by transferring them to the Moomin figures. She was unable to show anger, but Little My did, and Snufkin could just walk away from it. Tove couldn’t,” expresses Per Olov Jansson in the BBC programme Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson (2012). “It was not a choice in the strict sense,” as Tove Jansson told it on television in 1991, “but I think it was more that I tried to find my way back to those happy summers when I was little. It is not that I have written for any particular audience; I wrote because I wanted, and blatantly for myself.” In 1968 she argued with equal measures of humour and frankness that “It has to be a kind of backwardness that makes a person sit down and write children’s books. I strongly suspect that something is wrong. I wonder really what it is that one is looking for when a writer uses those innocent kids. Simply to venture into the lost world of security, excitement, all the things that you experienced when you were little, the expectation and the thrill of fear, the immense relief, the immense joy – all the things that are smoothed out later in life – intensity. I think that the happy endings are written just for me.”

Tove Jansson’s words that “It is an ingenious form of self-defence to take the sting out of both danger and triviality” form the recurring, if underlying, theme at the beautiful Millesgården. Presented is a very clever decoction of the huge jubilee exhibition in 2014 of Tove Jansson’s art at Ateneum, and this thing will be on the move until at least early 2018. In terms of images, her inimitable Moomin illustrations (as well as the sketches) are delicious things that surpass everything else that she did. What a rare master she was of the medium: perfect pitch and emotion, the philosophical depth and the darkness, the whimsy, the light at the end of the tunnel when the self-scrutiny is done, for the time being. And the more bored she was of this fantasy world that she had created, the better and more profoundly she pictured it. (It would have been desirable to see a few of the originals from Jansson’s picture book masterpiece Who Will Comfort Toffle? of 1960 included here.)

You sometimes have to take the sugar with the spice with Tove Jansson. Sleeping Among the Tree Roots (1930s) is a picture of hibernating “trolls” coiled up in their black cavities, safe from the ferocious world on the outside. They have stuffed their tummies with spruce needles like the Moomins would do through their winter sleep. They are proto-Moomins – Jansson’s uncle told her that a Mumintroll was living in his pantry when she was studying art in Stockholm in the early 1930s, and she imagined it as a bulky cross between Immanuel Kant and a hippo – seeds for a world that one day will be ridden of war. Bear in mind what she wrote in the almost biographical Sculptor’s Daughter (1968): “the best thing of all is to sit high up in a tree, that is if one isn’t still inside one’s Mummy’s tummy”.

Two undated (1930s) surrealistic paintings in the exhibition are purely fantastic, by any comparison. Mysterious Landscape is a state of mind painted as a widescreen landscape dissipated from reality and yet so very accurate. The brown, contaminated Landscape (Picnic) is another eternal autumn, with a group of people looking like uneasy actors gathered around absolutely nothing at all to eat. As for the galling grotesqueries of the six hundred political caricature drawings that she produced for the magazine Garm during fifteen years of pre-war and full-on war misery, they changed in tone towards the end and little by little. Jansson’s own signature figure, a cute grouch she called Snork, was a Moomin precursor that made its first public appearance in the April 1943 issue, under an umbrella.

Her pro-German father was not happy when her cover of the Führer as a lollypop kiddie demanding “More cake” – in the form of sliced up countries from his kindergarten attendants – turned up in the autumn of 1938. Another one of these artworks in the exhibition is the rowboats cover from the November 1944 issue, with fellow lives hopelessly sucked in by a swastika sea mine. It is the same desperation here as in Oskar Kokoschka’s The Bride of the Wind (1913), in which we find “der tolle” Kokoschka lost at sea in a tiny boat on the roaring waves with a sleeping Alma Mahler nestling on his shoulder. We know that they are going to die.

“Tove Jansson was a universal genius with an irresistible desire to express herself,” argues her authorised biographer Boel Westin in Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, adding that, “all through life she works on the book about herself in pictures and words”. Westin has a fine description in her essay in the catalogue about Jansson’s immense love for the small islands in the Pellinge archipelago east of Helsinki, and how that rich and limited life – always from early spring to late autumn – affected so much of her writing:

“The island is a throbbing life form, a place where people are looking for arguments and renew them, a topos in the classical rhetoric. One can think of the island of the Hattifatteners in Finn Family Moomintroll [1948] that rises out of the sea ‘wild and enticing’, the colonists’ island in The Exploits of Muminpappa [1950] ‘created as a heart’, or of the island of The Summer Book [1972], visually depicted as a living thing […] In Moominpappa at Sea [1965], Tove Jansson unites the idea of the island with Muminpappa’s yearning beyond the limits of Moominvalley. He sets his inner compass towards the lighthouse on the island in the outer archipelago, towards an island so small that, in Little My’s words, it just looks like a fly poop on the map.”

Her winter address since 1944 was Ulrikasborgsgatan 1 in Helsinki, a Moominhouse apartment-castle without a kitchen or a bathroom but with a studio space with six metres to the ceiling, preserved as she left it when she passed away in 2001. The toilet walls are papered with magazine pictures of disasters, stormy seas and ships in distress. “Ever since I was a very little girl, our family lived out on the islands. And it has been hugely important in every way. For instance, I would never have ventured into writing – I was an artist – if it wasn’t for those happy summers in the archipelago,” she told Swedish Yle, the Finnish public broadcaster for the five per cent of the Swedish-speaking population in Finland to which she of course belonged – that special way of speaking provided the Moomins with their (deceptively) mellow voices. “The recurrent friendly disasters in my stories where nothing is lost really had to do with the fact that my dad was in such a terribly good mood when there was bad weather. If the waves were high enough, he took us out to sail. Then we knew that dad was happy, finally.”

Tove Jansson built her sea paintings quite like her Moomin illustrations, with a delightful staccato of dashes. However, while her sensitive marker pen illustrations are works of headstrong originality and beauty beyond belief, her paintings always tended to go to places with a cluster of French old footprints; they are a bit of this and a bit of that, and it has to be said that it is mostly only in her self-portraits that we will find Tove Jansson. She is grasping an umbrella with her paws in The Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) – “I look like a cat in my yellow skin, with cold slanted eyes and my new, smooth hair in a bun,” she wrote to a friend – here is the fairly young artist revealing herself with finesse and substance, and a style of her own. The early paintings are signed “Tove” and the later ones “Jansson”, as in her final “ugly” self-portrait from 1975 in which she presents herself like an aged fauve (she was only sixty-one) and with the painted transparency of a jellyfish.

In 1946, Jansson found herself in quite a pickle when she fell in love with a married soon-to-be theatre directrice. “Not only was she very bold when she criticised Stalin and Hitler and totalitarianism. When she makes these two huge murals showing her first female lover, Vivica Bandler, it was during a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offense. I would say that these murals represent a bridge between her free painting and the Moomin illustrations,” says curator Sointu Fritze in front of the photographs of these gambolling frescoes, painted for the restaurant in Helsinki’s City Hall (you will find them in the Helsinki Art Museum today), with men depicted as statuesque dandies and the lovely young women as Botticelli angels in gorgeous dresses. The world was young again. People are dancing, and so is Vivica, with a male partner – alone at a table is Tove and her Moomintroll. Bandler, while abroad, received a letter during the completion of the work in 1947: “I know that the whole of my painting is going trough a process of change right now, becoming stronger and more alive, and this is thanks to you. Lines and colours are not enough if there is no expression and sap and intensity in them, even if it is the intensity of despair.” Tove is Thingumy and Vivica is Bob in Finn Family Moomintroll, and they walk hand in hand trough life with a big stolen ruby (their love) and a secret language that only they can understand.

Tove Jansson was made in Paris in the autumn of 1913. Her Swedish mother Signe Hammarsten (“Ham” to everyone including her children) and her Finnish father Viktor Jansson (“Faffan”) met each other at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse in 1910. The family’s first city home at Lotsgatan 4B in Helsinki was – like the Moomins – “a mix of bohemianism and bourgeois”: “We lived in a shabby, beautiful old studio, an environment that is fun for a child. The atmosphere was very easy-going, they were friendly, life was carefree. Of course they had difficulties, it was very complicated but you couldn’t tell,” as Jansson chose to remember her childhood. The parents built shelves for the children to reside on since the studio was so small. From her elevated position Tove used to participate in her father’s drunken gatherings with his male colleagues (women were not allowed). “It made me realise that these incomprehensible artists have to party,” she said.

“Tove’s mother had explained to the children that during the Civil War [in early 1918] something had snapped in their father and created irreparable cracks in his soul. Through the war, the once sunny-tempered, playful and amusing Viktor changed into an austere and embittered man, inflexible in his opinions. He smiled only on the rarest of occasions and in other ways found it extremely hard to express his feelings,” explains art historian Tuula Karjalainen in her book Tove Jansson: Work and Love. “Yet Tove admired her father tremendously, and in her art she depended on his views.” Between the lines there was always a cloud to every silver lining in Jansson’s “carefree” childhood. In her vivid diary she wrote: “I see how Faffan, the most shiftless and most short-sighted of us all, tyrannises the whole house, I see that Ham is unhappy because she has always said yes, smoothed things over, given in, given up her life and not got anything back except children, whom the men’s war will kill or make into bitter, negative people.”

What most hurt her about the cumbersome, philandering, alcoholic father was his opinion about Jews. Tove’s dearest friend the Jewish photographer Eva Konikoff had to leave Finland in 1941. In one of the many richly illustrated letters that Jansson sent to Konikoff in the United States she wrote: “I can see what would happen to my work if I get married, I would become either a bad painter or a bad wife. And I don’t want to give birth to children, only for them to be killed in some future war.” There were men in Tove Jansson’s life. After her loud dissatisfaction with the much traditional art courses in Stockholm, Helsinki, Paris (three schools) and Rome, Jansson turned to the Finnish (and Jewish) artist Sam Vanni for private tutoring. She confided to her diary: “When it began to get dark, Samuel gathered his brushes together, and with a joy that hurts, I would look at his pictures and tell myself, ‘It couldn’t be so beautiful if he didn’t love me.’”

In Comet in Moominland (1946) – the first true Moomin book and also one much revered by the connoisseurs, published only two years after the Nazis brought devastation to her country – we encounter the Edenic Moominvalley for the first time through the words of Tove Jansson: “It was a wonderful valley, full of happy little animals and flowering trees, and there was a clear, narrow river that came down from the mountain, looped around Moominhouse and disappeared in the direction of another valley, where no doubt other little animals wondered where it came from.”

“The war changed everything,” says Sointu Fritze. “And somehow it is very logical that the alien worlds that she describes in her surrealist paintings in the 1930s are the worlds that we meet in Moominvalley.” Tove Jansson expressed in a 1966 interview how she saw the child’s world as a fickle landscape of vibrant colours, clear logic and surreal circumstances: “It is an exciting world in many ways, maybe even more when one has left it, and only very rarely is given access to it again.” She gleaned her knowledge of children – or “kids” as she always called them (she often found them very selfish and at times macabre) – from the two thousand letters she received and replied to every year after the Moomins had become an international phenomenon. “Sometimes I wonder why people who have come quite a long way from childhood suddenly begin writing fairy tales,” she wondered in that interview. “Perhaps it is an attempt to release a surplus, the childishness that doesn’t have a place in adult society, or an effort to depict something that is being lost.”

Roger Ross Williams’s tragic and hopeful documentary Life, Animated (2016) is about Owen Suskind who disappeared into a world of his own at the age of three, and only started to speak again in his adolescence through the voices of the sidekick figures in animated Disney films. Tove Jansson devised a family of her own imagination with the Moomins, she found her way through this odd bunch of characters, and she ventured into this world at cross purposes. “She presented herself quite differently in the shrewd essay ‘The Devious Children’s Author’ of 1961, the most famous and quoted of her few texts about a matter of personal concern. Here she discusses the drives of writing and presents a self-image that is as far from an innocent Moomintroll or a dependable Moominmamma that you can get. Behind the books is a self-centred writer who writes children’s books for the benefit of her own childishness, least of all for the children,” imparts her biographer Boel Westin. “But the really devious author is not content with giving us the story of a Moomin family in a valley. Inexorably she writes on, crushes dreams, empties the valley and sends the family and herself into new realities and awakenings of various kinds.”

“Have you published this in Finland?” someone asks Touko Laaksonen in the biopic Tom of Finland (2017). “It would be easier to publish these in the Vatican,” is his terse reply. Tove Jansson’s early Moomin books were translated into English long before the Finns accepted them. In January 1952, she received a letter from London: “It has come to my mind that your Moomin family could make an interesting comic strip, which would not necessarily be aimed at children. It is obvious that the Moomin family appeals to children, but we think these wonderful creatures could be used in comic strip form to satirise our so-called civilised lifestyle.” It was from an agent of the Associated Newspapers who soon appeared in Helsinki to contract Jansson for a series of Moomin comic strips, and Jansson agreed to produce six strips a week from 1954 to 1959. London’s Evening News, which was the biggest newspaper in the world at the time, ran it together with twenty other papers around the world. The Moomins had twelve million readers when everyone started clapping.

In the catalogue Paul Gravett speaks of these strips as “the true heart of her life’s work”. But the strain from the exigent workload, the fame, and more than anything else the Moomin business that came with the global success made her fall apart. In 1957, Tove Jansson wrote in her diary: “I have poured out my feelings at Moomintroll, but he is changing. I no longer feel safe in my secret cage, it is trapping me inside.” Associated Newspapers threw away most of the originals of her twenty-one long Moomin stories, and the host of what we get in the exhibition is the sketches with the at once sweet and strange Moomins as they, gradually, turn into muddled personalities who only want to be left alone and grow potatoes.

“The seven years with the comic strips were certainly not very gracious. It was almost as if I lost all desire to all the Moomins not bound by contract. But once I arrived at turning everything upside down, and instead of trying to describe this happy summer veranda, I put Moomintroll in a completely different world – it was black and dark and cold, a winter world. And he got on just as well there as I liked or understood this comic strip world. And then the strange thing happened that suddenly this Moomintroll developed some bravado. He experienced not only adventure but also difficulties,” Jansson explained. “But thanks to this figure, Too-ticky, he managed to come up with a solution to it all and was very, very proud, and finally said in the book that ‘I am the first Moomin who have experienced a whole winter.’ And that is how I was able to carry on with my Moomin.” These rubies are forever.

Moominland Midwinter (1957) is Tove Jansson’s book about finding love, and losing her heart to fellow artist Tuulikki Pietilä, Tooti, Too-ticki. “It was almost as if their love was complete as soon as they met,” writes Tuula Karjalainen. “They had met by chance in a Paris nightclub when Vivica and Tove were travelling together, but now, in 1955 in Helsinki, a love was born that was to endure for almost half a century, until the end of their lives.” (Ateneum shows Tuulikki Pietilä’s graphic works in 2017 from February 28 to April 9.) In Helsinki, during wintertime, they had a secret passageway through the attic between their studios. The rest of the year was lived on Klovharun, a skerry not more than sixty metres long and thirty metres wide with a tiny cabin and a midget lagoon on the absolute outskirts of the archipelago.

Tove Jansson maintained that excursion, not escapism, was the foundation of her artistic endeavours. But it was completely necessary for her to escape fandom and telephones that rang every second minute, so she created this most fundamental sanctuary (without electricity or a toilet) on a fly poop on the map. “It is childish to say that you would not be helped by success. But it can also be something horrendous that stops one’s desire to work,” she said. “I think that people have a need to admire, and it can be a bit tricky. I think it is so that people who admire someone often get a sense of ownership, and that leads to quite a few mishaps because it may well be that the person being admired wants to be left alone and work.”

At Millesgården you can enjoy her watercolour sketches for the Moominesque picture book The Dangerous Journey (1977) as well as her illustrations for Lewis Carroll and Tolkien. It is fascinating how she moved her compelling sense of the Finnish landscape even into these authors’ works. (When the Norwegian director Joachim Trier set his hardly original family drama Louder Than Bombs [2015] in a North American landscape it looked like a Volvo commercial.) The only pair of things that don’t make any sense with Tove Jansson were her apparently genuine appreciation for the perfectly soulless and cutified animated Moomin series, made in Japan in the beginning of the 1990s. She and her brother Lars also wrote the script for the Swedish television series Moomintroll (1969), a thoroughly disturbing thing in which the Moomin actors removed their gargantuan heads in the second episode and played the rest of the show carrying these noodles under their arms.

“Are you Moomintroll?” The question was raised by Swedish writer Margareta Strömstedt in the TV film Moomin and the Sea (1968) (the small crew had to stay on Klovharun for twelve days due to the boisterous weather) and Jansson’s response was instant: “No, no, I’m probably not one of those figures. We have many common traits – as I have come to understand, gradually.” And then, realising how human she had made him: “I begin to suspect Moomintroll more and more, he is by no means a beautiful character.”

Yle aired “A Glimpse of Tove Janssson” on June 30, 2001, just three days after her death. Here we find the multi-artist listening to and commenting her own words from a Nagra tape recorder, once explaining why she had to dismantle the Moomins: “The figures you are describing are getting older, I cannot see that they develop, but they change the same way as you yourself change as the years go by, and suddenly you do not write for kids anymore. And then you have to stop – you cannot do a series because the kids expect a series. It comes to a point when it turns into something else, and I still regret that I could not continue to write about the Moomins, but it was absolutely impossible. It would have been dishonest.”

She emptied Moominvalley in the penultimate Moomin novel Moominpappa at Sea. Tove Jansson’s much beloved mother (and with Pietilä a jealous contender for her love) died in 1970 while she was writing on the last one, Moominvalley in November. Toft, the lonely creature in the story, is Tove: “Every time he thought about Moominmamma he got a headache. She had grown so perfect, so gentle and consoling that it was unbearable, she was a big, round, smooth balloon without a face. The whole of Moominvalley had somehow become unreal, the house, the garden and the river were nothing but a play of shadows on a screen and Toft no longer knew what was real and what was only in his imagination.”

Karjalainen: “After her father’s death [in 1958], Tove was surprised to realise how much he had meant to her mother. All her life Tove had wished she could rescue Ham from Faffan’s yoke. She had planned to take her mother with her and move to a better place, or at least to a land where there was colour, warmth and no perpetually demanding husband.” Instead, she took her darling Tooti on a trip around the world in 1971. All the novels and short stories that she henceforth wrote were for grownups. The world outside Mummy’s tummy was at times Edenic, especially on Klovharun. The woman who was not Moomintroll looked the other way when Tooti exterminated all the piss ants with kerosene.

Tove Jansson, The Family (1942). Photo: Finlands Nationalgalleri/Yehia Eweis. © Tove Jansson/Moomin Characters.

Tove Jansson: Desire to Create and Live at Millesgården in Stockholm through January 22, 2017. The following venues are Göteborgs konstmuseum (February 11–May 21, 2017), Kunstforeningen Gammel Strand, Copenhagen (June 6–September 10, 2017) and Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (October 25, 2017–January 28, 2018).

10 October 2016


Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, by Isabelle de Borchgrave
(after a painting by an unknown artist). Photo: Andreas von Einseidel.

Clothing as a metaphor for the dream (or nightmare) of transformation was central to the society of Renaissance Florence from Boccaccio to Machiavelli. Its citizens wrestled daily with self-identity, appearance, and display [in this] socioeconomic milieu in which Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio worked and the Medici ruled, where rich customers publicly demonstrated their social prestige by patronising recognised artists.

– Carole Collier Frick, Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing

He will be the original Medici man, he will be called Il Vecchio (the Elder), he will be named pater patriae (Father of the Nation) but at this particular Saturday, on September 7, 1433, when Cosimo de’ Medici is making his way through the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, he is just simply the richest man in the world.

For all his florins – and the new learning from the ancient human spirit, the great beauty, and the corrupt power that all this wealth was generating during early Renaissance – Cosimo never really reckoned on the historical ambush which awaited him that morning at the Palazzo Vecchio. For all he knew he had been called to appear before the City Council, to encounter a multiple of his worst political enemies. Instead, he was told to follow a guard up the narrow steps of the building’s ninety-four metres tall Arnolfo Tower. Somewhere between the one-handed clock and the topmost point a door was opened and Cosimo was pushed into the infamous prison cell the Alberghettino.

Through the window slit Cosimo overlooked his fantastic city – as described by Christopher Hibbert in The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – “of squares and towers, of busy, narrow, twisting streets, of fortress-like palaces with massive stone walls and overhanging balconies, of old churches whose façades were covered with geometrical patterns in black and white and green and pink, of abbeys and convents, nunneries, hospitals and crowded tenements, all enclosed by a high brick and stone crenelated wall behind which the countryside stretched to the green surrounding hills. Inside that long wall there were well over 50,000 inhabitants, less than there were in Paris, Naples, Venice and Milan, but more than in most other European cities, including London – though it was impossible to be sure of the exact number, births being recorded by the haphazard method of dropping beans into a box, a black bean for a boy, a white one for a girl.”

Brunelleschi’s cap for Santa Maria del Flore was under way a few minutes’ walk from where Cosimo was held captive. Charged with treason, Cosimo feared that the guards would hurl him out of the window or that his food would be poisoned or that the Florentines would agree on having him executed. But the people of the city liked their Renaissance man with the woodpecker nose and the simple clothes he wore, they liked the stark modesty of his person and the sumptuousness of his patronage of the arts and the Church, and the city-state relied on the Medici cloth industry and the Medici bank, the largest in the world with branches across Europe. In addition to that, the guards enjoyed his bribes that were shed around in plentiful amounts. After twenty days in prison Cosimo was free to leave the “Little Inn” for a life in exile. He made his return to Florence in 1434. The year marks the beginning of the grandiosity of the Medici principate.

After a thousand years in a lustless darkness of heavenly issues and shapeless smocks came the Renaissance with its interest in the achievements and capabilities of human beings, and likewise its focus on the uniqueness of the personal self and how it was to be presented.

“Outward life, indeed, in the 15th and the early part of the 16th centuries was polished and ennobled as among no other people in the world,” explains Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy from 1878, the first account of its kind about quattrocento and cinquecento Italy. “The costumes of the time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe; but we cannot be sure if they represent the prevalent fashion, or if they are faithfully reproduced by the artists. It is nevertheless beyond a doubt that nowhere was so much importance attached to dress as in Italy.”

The costumes of the time, taken from Renaissance paintings of the Medicis and interpreted, exaggerated and reborn as full-size paper dresses and full-life sculptures, is what the Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave (b 1946) presents through her staggering trompe-l’oeil techniques in Renaissance Fashion in Paper: The Medici Family Outside the Frame, to be seen and so much enjoyed in the vaults of the Royal Palace in Stockholm this winter. “My inspiration comes from period dresses, but they are subject to my poetic license. I’m really an artist; I sew with paint.” She really does.

Alberti talks about a divine force that operates in great portraits (“which not only makes men present [but] the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting”) in his treatise On Painting (1435). Madame de Borchrave brings that very power to life through painted paper. “I am very pleased to be here at the Royal Armoury with the old stones and the mysterious lighting. And it is like the Medicis are here – as if they have travelled from five hundred years ago, and stopped here,” she muses.

“I love fashion, because in fashion you can go into history. I always come back to the Medicis because I look at that family as an artist, and we know that the Renaissance had the best artists. I would like to give back what I receive when I am in front of a fresco or a painting. I spend time and time and time in museums and love so much of the colours and the trompe-l’oeil illusion of the paintings. My intention is to keep the spirit of the elegant fibres.”

Italian dress was made of silk, wool, cotton and linen, with linen closest to the body as the material for the full-length camicia (a shift-like garment), followed by layers of custom-made clothing in opulent, contrasting fabrics which produced a fluid, graceful and dignified whole that was richly decorated.

“Renaissance painters depict many of these luxurious fabrics so realistically that one can identify them as satins, cut velvets, or brocades, simply by looking at the pictures. These fabrics were especially suited to the almost sculptural lines of fashions of the Renaissance in Italy,” writes Phyllis Tortura in her Survey of Historic Costume. “Many of those fabrics utilised patterns and decorative motifs that were Chinese, Indian, or Persian in origin, a reflection of the close trading contacts between Italy and the Far East. Some Renaissance painters are thought to have designed textiles; others sketched textile designs to incorporate into their paintings.”

Museum Director Malin Grundberg, who is also the producer of the show, says that they found Isabelle de Borchgrave when they did research for another exhibition at the Hallwyl Museum (a sister museum to the Royal Armoury) with the multi-talented artist Mariano Fortuny’s legendary dresses from the first half of the 20th century, the lusciously pleated Delphos gown and his and his wife Henriette’s other interpretations of the fashions of ancient times. “Renaissance Fashion in Paper: The Medici Family Outside the Frame is the story of some of the members of the Medici family, in a chronological narrative that begins with Il Vecchio, the Elder, and ends somewhere in the mid-1700s in the last room,” Grundberg explains. “Not even the Armoury’s costume collection which, it must be said, is otherwise one of the best in the world, comprises these types of costumes from the Renaissance.”

Around 1490 Leonardo penned that “A good painter has two chief objects to paint: man and the intention of his soul. The former is easy, the latter hard.” In her book Women in Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity, Paola Tinagli describes how the nature of man was filtered through notions of an ancient ideal by the Renaissance man: “The painters of Greece and Rome had knowledge of these ‘secrets’ which Renaissance artists were trying to rediscover. The search for the ideal is evident through this period, and is manifested in the study for the proportions to be used in the representation of the human body, in the design of buildings, in the plans for ideal cities. Idealisation and selection of what is best in nature were necessary for the painter in order to eliminate the imperfections of reality.”

“I have to dream a lot to make others dream,” says de Borchgrave. Her Brussels studio is a huge space filled with as many gifted specialists as a Parisian haute couture atelier. Each of her sculptures takes four to eight weeks to bring out in considerable detail. It is the elaborate elements together with the unspoken stuff of the trompe-l’oeil magic that conveys us to the intention of the costumes in the Renaissance portraits. She has created a minuscule “studio” for the show, and everything is in paper of course (which you are allowed to touch, but only here), with rolls of fabrics, and oversized Pritt glue sticks, scissors, brushes, pencils and a sharpener. It looks like a charming scene from Jean de Brunhoff’s stories about Babar the Elephant.

Oh well then, what’s a Medici ball at the Royal Palace? Cosimo il Vecchio greets us in a simple costume (with a row of ball buttons and a raised collar) that actually looks like a crinkly paper costume. It goes from this to the highly bedecked paper Medicis, all dressed to the nines.

Four kilometres of cheap pattern paper is used each year in de Borchgrave’s studio to achieve the incredible splendour of the pieces. Paper makes her adventurous. “I play with paper, it was my first medium as a child. It’s a very inexpensive material, so you can use a lot of it and cut it without fear, unlike a canvas,” she told The Washington Post (June 22, 2012). “When I was very young my mother took me to museums. I was charmed by Manet’s Le Déjuner sur l’herbe [1863] and the colours – the green, the white, the black spots. As a child all I could see was the grass, the flowers and the animals at the bottom of the paintings. Little by little I could see the people, the costumes, the space. I discovered dresses through painting, and what I liked was the shape, the sculpture, the colour, the details.”

Portrait of a Lady at a Window (1470–75) is a painting by Sandro Botticelli, one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, and a possible portrait of a woman named Smeralda Bandinelli. The portrait was once in the possession of the Pre-Raphaelite brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who took the liberty of modifying the unadorned Lady with strokes of tempera. One of the things he changed the look of was her headgear, which de Borchgrave and her team have remodelled one step further, and through some kind of alchemy (and acrylic paint) recreated the translucency of the Lady’s costume, her reddish dress and the diaphanous voile.

In 1482, Botticelli painted his mythological works Primavera and Pallas and the Centaur, which were two of his last playful pieces before he became too immersed in the teachings of the Christian devout Savonarola (who was hanged and burned at the Piazza della Signoria in 1498), and which were in the same room at the little Medici abode Palazzo Pitti. From these paintings we have the lovely Flora and Pallas (here unarmed) as the exhibition’s two “Botticelli angels”. And as Paola Tinagli argues in her book, “Man may be the expression of the perfect propositions of the universe, as Leonardo’s famous image of the Vitruvian man implies, but to the average tourist visiting the Uffizi or the Louvre it is images of women which embody the ideals of beauty and harmony of the Italian Renaissance.”

The only paper dresses that de Borchgrave had made before 1994 were a few fancy dress creations for her children. That year she went to New York to see the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan, and to meet her friend the Canadian costume designer Rita Brown who was in town to restore some old silk dresses. It was a combination of the energy of New York and what she had just witnessed in the YSL exhibition that made de Borchgrave realise that she wanted to go back to fashion, “but in another way”: “I told my friend that I wanted to do a dress in paper and she said, ‘Are you crazy? Why?’”

Brown, who calls herself “the technician” in all this, came to Brussels to assist de Borchgrave in her dream to work out a series of paper costumes, “fashion history from Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel” based on favourites from Janet Arnold’s massive Patterns of Fashion (de Borchgrave owns four thousand books today), thirty pieces that were ready in 1999 and which they named Papiers à la Mode.

Medici children, by dress, were tiny adults. de Borchgrave’s parents knew what to do with their precocious child who painted her whole imaginative world on the walls of her bedroom – her mother rolled them white again as soon as they were full. They allowed her to drop school at fourteen to enter the Centre des Arts Décoratifs (“It was only pencil drawing on paper, nothing more for three years, eight hours a day. It was like military service. No paint, no colour, nothing”) and then there were further studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, also in Brussels.

“I opened a little workshop. I was seventeen and I had no clue about anything. I – comment vous dit? – I read a book about Coco Chanel” – de Borchgrave adores Chanel – “and I opened a fashion shop and I received a lot of customers. It was a success, but no money. So I changed the shop to be for everything in the home. Big success, no money.”

Christopher Hibbert has a piece on the “street fashions” of the day in his book about the Medicis: “To the dismay of many an austere churchman, the wives of Florentine merchants were, indeed, renowned for their sumptuous clothes, their elegance, their pale skin and fair hair. If their hair was too dark they dyed it or wore a wig of white or yellow silk; if their skin was too olive they bleached it; if their cheeks were too rosy they powdered them. And they walked the streets in all manner of styles and colours, in dresses of silk and velvet, often adorned with sparkling jewels and silver buttons; in winter they wore damask and fur, showing off prized features of a wardrobe which might well have cost far more than their husband’s house.”

What made the Florentines the best dressers in the world were not only their great industry and craft, and all the money. A great factor was also, and quite ironically, their sumptuary laws that regulated showiness and consumption. “The Medici stoked residual memories of republican dress, while simultaneously tolerating and judiciously promoting more ostentatious clothing,” writes Elizabeth Currie in Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence. “Florence was well placed to be a leader of fashion, but various barriers prevented its wealthy citizens from wholeheartedly embracing ostentatious dress, not least the usual moral reservations regarding luxury, which was widely held to pose a threat to the social order, the body politic, and the economy. Additionally, Florentines were proud of their city’s sartorial tradition of modesty and sobriety.”

Rulers and their offspring are by default history’s great bores. Isabelle de Borchgrave’s art is a kind of unforced, joyous history lesson based on a particularly elegant and eccentric obsession, which in effect superimposes our really much obvious relationship with the past. She has pulled out Cosimo I de’ Medici from his throne in a portrait by an unknown painter, made him stand up for her and relieved him of his sceptre. Apart from that we see him in his full “king” regalia – Cosimo I became the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569 through a spree of violence and murder. Between him and his wife in the exhibition is a little girl, their daughter Bia who died at the age of six and who was portrayed posthumously by one of the greatest painters during High Renaissance: Agnolo Bronzino.

“To understand the higher forms of social intercourse at this period we must keep before our minds the fact that women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men. We must not suffer ourselves to be misled by the sophistical and often malicious talk about the assumed inferiority of the female sex which we meet with now and then in the dialogues of the time,” argued Jacob Burckhardt in his very early study of the Renaissance. “There was no question of ‘women’s rights’ or female emancipation simply because the thing itself was a matter of course.”

The poetic licence behind the exhibition’s Eleonora de Toledo, the Duke’s first spouse, is that de Borchgrave has reversed the contrasting colours in the court painter’s superb portrait of her (and her son Giovanni) from 1544–45. The portrait is described in The Art of Florence (by the trio Glenn Andres, John Hunsiak and Richard Turner): “Eleonora is clothed in a gorgeous russet, cream, and black brocaded dress, the slightest threads of which are faithfully recorded. The ample spread of this stiff garment, so assertively flat as pattern, joins an almost iconic stiffness to the flesh and blood of the sitters. Sometimes described as a painting in which persons are rendered as still life, the Eleonora seeing rather to magnify a tension present in almost all of Bronzino’s portraits, between elegant material surfaces and the inner palpitation of individual life.”

Maria de’ Medici and her younger sister Isabella, two of their daughters, are from portraits by Bronzino’s right hand, Alessandro Allori. Maria, who died when she was only seventeen, is dressed in a beautiful royal blue gown with striped, golden sleeves. Isabella wears a very dark and wide gown with shoulder puffs, and that irradiant white neck ruff that was so emblematic for Renaissance fashion. She does look a bit ghostlike here, considering the way she died: Isabella de’ Medici was murdered on July 16, 1576 in Villa Medicea di Cerreto Guidi, a place she is said to haunt.

The divine force in de Borchgrave’s vestimentary delights is indeed a balanced interplay between elegant material surfaces and the inner palpitation of individual life. The Kennedy Archive in Boston commissioned her to recreate Jackie K’s wedding dress – here is a big jump to modern history – which of course was made in 1953. “It was dusty and fragile, wrapped up in black tissue paper,” she told The Telegraph (October 12, 2008). “The silk was dead, you couldn’t touch it anymore. It was preserved as a relic. The original is dead, but the paper one brings it to life again.”

This is Orson Welles, in F for Fake (1973): “Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

Go on singing.

The depth and the yearning of Mme de Borchgrave’s paper dreams is a celebration to the dignity of man, always on the edge of slipping out of synch.

Smeralda Bandinelli by Isabelle de Borchgrave (after a painting ascribed to Botticelli).
Photo: Andreas von Einseidel.

Renaissance Fashion in Paper: The Medici Family Outside the Frame at the Royal Armoury (Livrustkammaren) in Stockholm through March 19, 2017.