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).