Review by Laura Garmeson
In 1944, war had been raging across Europe for several years. October of that year saw the publication of a Swedish-language political magazine called Garm, with its typically lively satirical covers. Illustrated with a cartoon Hitler in various attitudes of destruction, the cover artist depicts the Führer as a greedy child, rummaging recklessly through drawers, sweating as he carts off piles of loot, and sitting in the curve of Garm’s ‘G’ brandishing a ping pong bat. Amid the commotion, it’s easy to miss another, smaller creature curled around the base of the ‘M’, with its long snout peeping inquisitively, ears pricked and tail coiling out from behind the letters. It is unmistakably a Moomin.
The author of this cartoon was the thirty-year-old Tove Jansson, who even then was considered a woman of many talents. Not only would she go on to be the creator of the magical world of the Moomins, which provided the setting for some of the best loved children’s books of the twentieth century, she is also one of the most famous artists, writers and illustrators to emerge from Scandinavia. It was while working for Garm that the little bulbous-nosed creature first appeared in her illustrations as her signature – the coincidence being that it remains emblematic of her work to this day.
The exhibition Tove Jansson (1914-2001), newly opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, is the first major UK retrospective of her work. It unites 150 pieces across five gallery rooms painted in warm, bright colours, each room dedicated to a different aspect of her prolific output. The Moomin stories and examples of Jansson’s writing are here, alongside bold paintings, graphic art, comic strips, and illustrations for Swedish-language editions of Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. A hazy picture of the artist emerges, one that is somehow contradictory and cohesive, as though Jansson’s flitting between mediums – particularly those of so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art – brought alternating forces within her to the fore. As Finnish art historian Tuula Karjalainen writes, ‘all aspects of her creativity should be seen as separate entities whose only common denominator seems to be their author.’
Born in Helsinki in 1914 to an artistic family (her mother was an illustrator, her father a sculptor) Jansson grew up in and around her parents’ studio filled with plaster dust and half-finished sculptures. She was precocious, publishing short stories and cartoons during her teens, which gradually garnered attention. Although writing and drawing were always her favoured forms of self-expression, she considered herself to be first and foremost a painter. One of her paintings from the 1930s, Mysterious Landscape, is a good example of her early use of images to tell stories. There is a darkly ethereal quality to the scene, cloaked in deep blue swaths of oil paint to depict craggy hills, finely traced with gleaming white paths. Ghostly pale trees line an avenue leading to a white house, while the misty lights of an unknown city twinkle just beyond the horizon. The canvas pulses with magic and mystery.
Storytelling and fantasy were to be pervasive in her work, and illustration – as well as being her main source of income – became the obvious visual medium through which to express these interests. Many of her Indian ink sketches feature in this exhibition, creating fluid, highly textured images. In the illustrations for the book Moominpappa at Sea and Comet in Moominland, she uses line in a dynamic and liberated way, from countless tiny flicks to give the impression of foaming, crashing waves, to long sweeping sheets depicting pouring rain. There is, however, a darker side to the Moomin books that comes from their context; Jansson wrote many of them during World War II, which gives them an extra layer of meaning. The genesis of their cosy, family-oriented world came from a strong urge to escape the horrors of the present. Her Moomin protagonists form the anchor for these pieces, but she was just as adept at giving life to other’s stories, as her illustrations for The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland show.
Jansson was also impelled to tell her own story through art. She used herself as the subject for various paintings throughout her life, and several of these self-portraits are on display here. Probably the most striking of these, and the one that best captures her character, is Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait). Jansson describes herself in the portrait: ‘I look like a cat in my yellow fur, with cold, slanting eyes and my new smooth hair in a bun’. Her gaze is directed away from the viewer, she stands erect with a slightly steely expression, the luxuriant fur draped warrior-like around her shoulders. The lynx boa is symptomatic of a lifelong obsession Jansson had with fur, dating from her teenage years when she sewed herself a pair of fur trousers from the hides of many different animals. Individuality and a strong sense of self dogs these self-portraits, revealing a woman unafraid to show herself as she is.
The last room in the exhibition is given over to the Moomin legacy, which showed Jansson to be as intuitive in business as she was in art. She was involved in Moomin merchandise as far back as the 1950s, and once she started contributing a Moomin comic strip in a Finnish newspaper it was swiftly picked up by the London Evening News (now the Evening Standard) and amassed 20 million readers in over 40 countries, making her a household name.
Although clouded by the shadow of war, Jansson’s life is a rich lesson in the importance of curiosity, the freedom to be found in self-expression, but above all, in the magical powers of storytelling, which can convert even the darkest of experiences into light.
Tel: 020 8693 5254
To 28 January 2018