Tove Jansson’s picture books about the hippo-like creatures from Moominvalley have sold millions of copies and been translated into 44 languages. The charming characters have also appeared in ad campaigns, comic strips, an animated TV show and even an opera.
But the Moomins are just one small part of Jansson’s vast and diverse output. She was also a painter and prolific political cartoonist who used her talents to condemn Hitler, Stalin and the rise of the far right. Alongside creating her own children’s books, she illustrated classic titles by J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll and created advertising posters for charities and environmental campaigns.
A new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery – the first major retrospective of Jansson’s work in the UK – aims to shine a light on this varied career. It’s a rare chance to see Jansson’s art up close and offers a fascinating glimpse into her personal life and creative process.
The exhibition begins with a look at Jansson’s paintings. She grew up surrounded by art – her mother was a painter and her father a sculptor – and, though a Finn, she enrolled at the Konstfack School of Applied Art in Stockholm aged just 16. She went on to study at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in her home town of Helsinki from 1933-1937 and the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938.
Jansson’s fascination with Nordic fairytales is evident in her paintings of forests and imagined landscapes from the 1930s. She also painted herself and her friends and family: self-portraits from the same period show a confident young woman while a painting from 1942 highlights divisions in her family during World War Two.
The painting shows Jansson dressed in black while her brother wears military uniform. Her father is dressed in a smock and carries a newspaper with the word ‘Nazi’ printed on its cover while Jansson’s mother (a pacifist) wears white. Jansson never much liked this picture – perhaps because of the unhappy time it represents – but it’s a powerful reminder of the impact that war had on both her personal life and her art.
The political artist
Jansson’s illustrations for Finnish-Swedish political magazine GARM are also showcased here. She and her mother produced hundreds of illustrations for the Helsinki-based GARM in the late 1930s and throughout World War Two. One cover depicts Hitler as a crying toddler shouting Mer Kaka! (‘More cake!’) while being presented with slices representing various countries. Another shows Father Christmas and a group of angels looking on in horror as planes drop bombs on towns and cities.
Jansson was just 15 when she began working for GARM and she took a huge risk in attacking Hitler and Stalin – had the war ended differently, she almost certainly would have been persecuted for doing so – but she was a fearless artist who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
The abstract years
Another room looks at Jansson’s paintings from the 1960s. By this time she had already found commercial success with her Moomins books and comic strips but longed to focus on fine art. Her paintings from this period are more abstract: stormy seas and rock formations are painted in loose brush strokes in a style that is worlds apart from the illustrations seen in the Moomins books.
One of the most striking pieces from this section is Jansson’s last self portrait. Created in 1975 – when she was aged 64 – it shows her looking much older, this time with dark circles around her eyes. The painting marks another change in style and reveals an artist who continued to experiment throughout her career.
Moomins and picture books
The rest of the exhibition celebrates Jansson’s artwork for children’s books: first for illustrated editions of The Hobbit and The Hunting of The Snark by J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. These illustrations have to be seen up close to fully appreciate Jansson’s attention to detail – from her skilful line work and clever use of light and shade to the brilliant expressions on characters’ faces. Jansson could communicate so much with just a few strokes of her pen and her imaginative artwork never fails to raise a smile.
A room devoted to the Moomins picture books highlights Jansson’s meticulous process. She would create several drafts of each illustration, working first in pencil and later in watercolours or ink. Character development sketches show her focus on making sure each element of an illustration was just right – she would tirelessly draw and redraw characters and compositions until they were perfect. It’s a joy to see the development of her much-loved stories and reassuring to see that her work isn’t the product of some ‘Eureka!’ moment but carefully refining and revising her ideas.
Comics and more
The exhibition ends with a look at the Moomins comic strips and advertising work featuring the fictional creatures.
Jansson’s Moomins strips appeared in Finnish newspaper Ny Tid and in the Evening Standard from 1954 to 1975. Few of these final strips remain but the exhibition includes sketches and final drafts for a handful of stories – including one about a wealthy man who wishes to be a struggling bohemian artist and another about a Moomin raising eyebrows in a bikini at the beach.
Jansson had never created comic strips before but she embraced the challenge and adopted the same meticulous approach as she did when working on picture books. It’s another example of her versatility and her willingness to experiment with new formats. The strips were a huge success and reached 20 million readers in 40 countries.
Throughout her career Jansson also produced illustrations for advertising. The exhibition features a poster for a theatre company alongside illustrations for the Red Cross, Amnesty International and anti-littering initiative Keep Sweden Tidy. Jansson was generous with her characters but she would only allow the Moomins to be used by organisations that aligned with her values.
The Moomins books were much loved for their beautiful illustrations and tales of triumph over adversity. But they also dealt with some complex themes. Characters Thingumy and Bob were inspired represented Jansson’s relationship with Vivica Bandler. The inseperable pair carried a single handbag with a red ruby inside as a symbol of forbidden love. Referencing a same sex relationship (however discretely) in a 1950s children’s book was a bold move – but Jansson wasn’t afraid of being provocative and often wrote her life into her art.
The exhibition is a rare treat for fans of the Moomins. But the real joy lies in discovering more about the artist who created these much-loved creatures. Jansson was an inspiring woman and a prolific and tirelessly creative artist. You could fill whole galleries with her illustrations or paintings but the exhibition is a fascinating introduction to her vast body of work and the experiences that inspired it.
Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001) is on at Dulwich Picture Gallery until January 28 2018. See dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk for details.