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25 November 2017

What do Moomins have to do with the horrors of war?

Finnish artist Tove Jansson was far more than just her children’s books, as this retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery shows.

By Lizzie Palmer

Moominvalley, with its snow-covered mountains, lush greenery and friendly, peace-loving creatures seems as far as one can get from the horrors of war. But the Moomins have more to do with strife and struggle than is immediately apparent. Their creator, Tove Jansson (1914-2001), was a political cartoonist from the age of 15, skewering fascism and communism during the Second World War. She channelled the wartime pain of her native Finland into her apocalyptic first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), a reminder that however calm things may seem on the surface, life can be both frightening and unpredictable.

In Dulwich Picture Gallery’s retrospective of Jansson’s work there is no escaping the cuddly trolls who brought her worldwide fame. Born in Helsinki to Swedish-speaking artist parents, Jansson saw herself primarily as a painter, taking on illustration work for the money. As the Moomins took off, popularised by a daily comic strip in London’s Evening News, Jansson became overwhelmed by their success.

Her brother Lars eventually took over drawing the comics, allowing her to concentrate on painting and writing novels and short stories for adults. But she remained fiercely protective of the Moomin brand, turning down an offer from Disney to buy the rights and only lending its image to causes that were important to her, such as a poster for Amnesty International showing the characters trapped behind bars like political prisoners.

What is clear from this exhibition is the breadth of Jansson’s talent. She worked with bold typography and bright colours on the cover of Garm, a Finnish satirical magazine in which she openly mocked Hitler and Stalin, drawing little characters called “Snorks” next to her signature. (The later name “Moomintroll” came from a tale Jansson’s uncle made up to scare her as a child.)  As Jansson grew as a painter she began to create impressionistic seascapes, the colours blurring into one another, a sharp contrast to her intricate illustrations. But the themes that run through all of her work are instantly recognisable; a connection with nature – and water in particular – is always present.

A biography inside old Puffin editions of the Moomin stories said Jansson lived alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. The truth was she stayed in her remote summer home with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä, a graphic artist and professor whom she had met in 1955, but the women’s relationship was often glossed over. Being gay was illegal in Finland until 1971, and only declassified as an illness in 1981. Jansson herself, however, defied labels, according to her niece Sophia: “It wasn’t gender that mattered to Tove, it was the individual.”

Jansson’s early self-portraits show a confident, self-assured woman, wrapped in a lynx boa or smoking a cigarette. The spectre of war that lurks within much of her work is made explicit in Family (1942), which shows her with her siblings and parents around an ominous red and white chess set. Jansson herself is clad in black mourning dress, and one brother wears a military uniform.

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While her paintings were well-received in Finland, after a solo show in 1955 an influential critic concluded that they would fail to make an impression internationally. This must have left Jansson demoralised as she struggled to balance her time between different projects. She provided the illustrations for the Swedish-language editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, as well as JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Although these differ in style to the Moomin books, her signature is clearly there – in the ominous landscapes, dark caves and bright moonlit skies, as well as the soulful eyes of the characters.

Lynx Boa, Self-Portrait (1974)

In the exhibition, illustrations from one of Jansson’s lesser-known Moomin books, The Dangerous Journey, are a highlight. They tell the story of a girl called Susanna who explores a nightmarish world, creating a lavish, colourful universe where danger lurks around every corner; sugary pink skies contrast with erupting volcanoes and dark shapes hide in the forest. Susanna is a tiny, blonde, bespectacled figure – said to look like a young Sophia – but she shows courage in the face of the scariest monsters.

Jansson’s admiration for strong women is clear. One of her final paintings, Print Maker (1975), depicts Pietilä hard at work in her studio, a proud artist surrounded by her creations. Jansson’s last self-portrait, painted at 64, shows her with a pained face and her eyes ringed with red, but the look of controlled defiance is still there. The Moomin books feature plenty of complicated female characters, from the calm and gentle Moominmamma to the spiky Little My – who resembles Jansson herself. She also paid homage to the real women in her life: Pietilä appears as a character called Too-Ticky, while the inseparable Thingumy and Bob represent Jansson and Vivica Bandler, a married theatre director whom she met and fell in love with in 1946.

Since Jansson’s death, the Moomin empire has continued to grow: a Moomin theme park is being built in Japan, and a new TV series is being recorded with a voice cast including Rosamund Pike, Kate Winslet, Richard Ayoade and Will Self. At the age of 80 Jansson said that while her life had been colourful, she would do everything differently given another chance. A world without Moomins, though, would be a meaner place; we need Jansson’s creatures to remind us that not all trolls are bad.

“Tove Jansson” runs until 28 January 2018

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder