Tove Jansson

There was much more to the life and work of Tove Jansson than her signature creations, the Moomins

Boadicea Meath Baker

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was one of the 20th century’s best-loved authors and illustrators, but an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery shows there was much more to her life and work than her signature creations, the Moomins. She painted throughout her life, and drew hundreds of satirical cartoons; many works are exhibited in the UK for the first time.

Her father Viktor was a sculptor; her mother Signe Hammarsten, also a graphic artist, designed more than 200 postage stamps for the Bank of Finland. They and her two younger brothers appear in the family portrait above; Per Olov, in uniform, Lars playing chess. In 1929 she started work at the satirical magazine Garm, staying with it until it closed in 1953, on the death of its founder and editor Henry Rein.

“Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait)”, 1942 (private collection. photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis)

She drew hundreds of cartoons for Garm, and once said that she liked nothing better than “being beastly to Stalin and Hitler”. In 1935 Tove drew a shop assistant telling a little girl that dolls no longer say “Mama”—they say “Heil Hitler”. Her cover  for October 1938 referenced the Munich Agreement and showed Hitler as a child, screaming for more cake (“Mer Kaka!”) as nervous adults present him with slices labelled with the names of European countries. The magazine came close to being charged with “insulting the head of a friendly state”. Jansson was subject to censorship: a cover for the November 1940 issue that showed Stalin drawing a large sword, only for it to detumesce before his eyes, was redrawn to depict a generic Russian soldier. (Finland and Russia were then in peace negotiations after the Winter War.)

The cover of “Garm”, no. 10, 1938 (photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen)

The first Moomin appears in these drawings: a small, often half-hidden, long-nosed creature which Jansson called “Snork” and used as a sort of signature alongside her own “Tove”. Snork is not quite so friendly as the other Moomins. The motivation to write also came from the war. In 1991 Jansson wrote: “One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures. Perhaps it was understandable that I suddenly felt the urge to write down something that began with “Once upon a time” . . . I excused myself by avoiding princes, princesses and small children and chose instead my angry signature character from the cartoons, and called him the Moomintroll.” People from her own life appear: her onetime fiancé Atos Wirtanen is the nomadic, philosophising Snufkin, who tears down “Do Not Walk On The Grass” signs, and her subsequent lifelong partner, graphic designer Tuulikki Pietila, appears as the practical, wise Too-Ticky, the Moomins’ neighbour. It’s striking how melancholy the books are, and how often the Moomin family are threatened. In the first Moomin story The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), Moominpappa has disappeared, and the forest is full of refugee families; in Comet in Moominland (1946) the family go to sleep believing the world has been destroyed, only to find next morning that it has been spared.

Illustration for the book “Comet in Moominland”, 1946, by Tove Jansson (Moomin Museum, Tampere, photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen)

The last Moomin book appeared in 1970. Jansson went on to write books for adults. She later said: “I couldn’t continue. I couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again. But one thing I did, not only for the children but for myself as well: in the very last sentence of the book you see the Moomins’ lantern approaching in the distance.” 

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