― Tove Jansson,
As I wandered down through Dulwich Park to the Dulwich Picture Gallery I gazed in awe at the beauty of nature, the knotty branch formations of the park's trees, the play of January sunlight across the mostly empty expanses of green, and the sheer joy of a dog chasing its own tail. I was certainly in an appropriate mood to take in the gallery's Tove Jansson (1914-2001) exhibition.
Jansson herself saw beauty in the everyday, magic in the family unit, and appreciated that a small adventure was just as glorious as a large one if only you let it be so. She prided herself on her values of diversity and tolerance and made sure her door was open should anyone wish for either guidance or shelter. She was, there can be no doubt, an all round good egg.
Swedish speaking Jansson was born in Helsinki, then an autonomous part of the soon to be over Russian empire, in 1914 (there's a clue in the exhibition title) and began her fine art studies at the age of sixteen at the Konstfack School of Applied Art in Stockholm before moving on to the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society and, finally, to L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts Paris.
Sleeping in the Roots (1930s)
Mysterious Landscapes (1930s)
You can see both the influence of the era's French art and, just occasionally, the seed of inspiration that would inform her later illustrative work in the paintings she made at that time. While the ovular forms of Sleeping in the Roots suggest baby Moomins, or perhaps Barbapapa's family, growing inside a tree, other works like Blue Hyacinth and Maya from towards the end of that decade point to the influence of fauvism and Gauguin.
Blue Hyacinth (1939)
Bold and self-confident self-portraits (my favourite of Jansson looking stunning and assured in yellow vest top and blue pleated skirt above) dot the rooms of the exhibition but for every light there must be some shade. 1941's After Party looks west across the Baltic to the influence of Oslo's Edvard Munch for its sense of disorientation. There's a party going on but it's not going very well. Something amiss has happened and nobody seems quite sure what to do about it.
Far more real concerns were raging across Europe at the same time though, as Hitler's fascist troops tore the continent up in a way that could never, and should never, be forgotten. If Finland allied as co-belligerents with the Nazis in a bid to shake off the influence of the Soviet Union then Jansson was certainly having none of it. She proudly described herself as "uncompromisingly pacifistic" and mocked and derided both Hitler and Stalin as pathetic individuals. Not least in a series of covers for the satirical anti-fascist magazine GARM in which Nazism was correctly pilloried.
One of these covers saw the character Snork make her debut. Snork, who would later transform into Moomintroll, represented Jansson's alter ego. Another saw Hitler portrayed as a crying baby in a nappy surrounded by Neville Chamberlain and other European leaders who are seen trying to stop the Fuhrer's tantrum by passing him slices of cake in the shape of Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
After Party (1941)
The exhibition is split into two. The first half contains Jansson's work as a painter and the second half as an illustrator. In the middle the crypt has been transformed into a refreshingly airy, yet snug, reading room complete with throws and bean bags. It's certainly not a chronological reflection of Jansson's life though as the painting appears to have taken something of a backseat once the illustration proved to be more successful both financially and critically.
Jansson returned to oil painting in the sixties with a more abstracted palette than before. Rough sketches of choppy seas that resemble JMW Turner as if channelled through the brush of Frank Auerbach and a painting of fennels that harks back to Cezanne or perhaps even as far as Chardin.
Abstract Sea (1963)
Beaufort Scale (1966)
While The Moomins are what Jansson became, and still is, most famous for by the length of Lake Ladoga, she was commissioned to provide the illustrations for Swedish translations of already canonical children's literature such as JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark.
No doubt concerned that taking on these commissions would somehow undermine her Moomins work (which, in turn it is suggested, she feared, correctly, would overshadow her painting) Jansson intentionally used bolder lines than she did for Moominpappa and the gang.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1966)
The Hunting of the Snark (1959)
Truth be told it's hard to make a distinction and neither does it matter a jot. In these drawings, as with the stories they accompanied, she's created a magical world not dissimilar to those of Carroll or Tolkien and akin to those lovingly brought to life by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's Noggin the Nog and Pogle's Wood.
The initial idea for the Moomins came about during those dark days of WWII. Jansson saw herself as the architect of a complete and complex philosophy of life and these were the characters that would live out the morality tales that were to instruct us how to adopt that philosophy. It sounds almost cultish but it seems Jansson's only desire was for more love and for more peace in the world. Good for her.
The first book was 1945's The Moomins and the Great Flood (suggesting Jansson might be nicking some ideas from other mythological tales such as that of the bizarre and bloodthirsty medieval cult Christianity). Soon the roster of main characters had fallen into place and each one of them represented somebody in Jansson's actual life. Moomintroll, as we've established, was Jansson herself, Moominmamma and Moominpappa were, you'll see this coming, her mum and dad, and Too-Ticky was Jansson's life partner Tuulikki Pietila.
There's a vitrine case featuring models of these characters plus others like Snorkmaiden, Snufkin, The Muddler, Hemulen, and Hattifattener. Top hats, long faces, and doe eyes, of course, dominate.
Comet in Moominland (1946)
The final room tells the story of how a small Finnish illustrator's works came to become so widely known. They were first printed in the Finnish socialist newspaper Ny Tid in 1947 and picked up by the UK Evening News (now the Standard, a paper whose current editor George Osborne it would be hard to make a case for appreciating 'diversity' and 'tolerance') which published The Moomins from 1954 through to 1975.
At its height the strip had 20,000,000 readers in forty different countries worldwide but from 1960 to 1975 Tove's brother Lars took over so she could return, as we've seen earlier, to her first love of painting. The Moomins ventured out into different media too. 1949 saw a play in Helsinki. Other plays followed, an opera too, before television and film series were made. Those of a similar vintage to me would've grown up watching either the Polish or Japanese animated series.
There's a few items of merchandise spread around the kindergarten colour schemed rooms to look at, the most interesting being the Keep Sweden Clean and Amnesty International campaigns that Jansson, often understandably precious about the misuse of her beloved creations, allowed the Moomins to be used for. What with the idea boards on the wall to make the exhibition fun for young children (us old children no doubt happy just to wallow in nostalgia) this was a charming little show, chock-full of lame jokes and old fashioned woolly liberal sentiment, that really did seem to look back on a happier time. Bearing in mind, once again, that these creations first appeared during the darkest hours of the entire twentieth century they should give us hope that, eventually, the pendulum will swing away from hate and division and back towards love and tolerance.
As Tove Jansson herself once said "I only want to live in peace, plant potatoes and dream".
Moominland Midwinter (1957)
The Dangerous Journey (1970s)
Moominpappa at Sea (1965)