Last month I was lucky enough to visit the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Even on a cold Thursday afternoon in January, the Gallery was crowded, which gives some idea of the extraordinary popularity of this artist and writer. Anyone who loved the Moomins in childhood would probably be drawn to an exhibition of her work; the current British fashion and fascination for all things Scandinavian is probably expanding her audience. Ethnically and linguistically Swedish, but born and raised in Finland, Jansson is positioned interestingly on the borders of Scandanavia – but her work and writing definitely speaks to us of her origins in the far north.
Tove Jansson was an extraordinarily wide-ranging artist, producing works in oils, illustrations, the vast world of Moomin in both book and comic-strip form, novels and short stories. The exhibition started with her early works in oils, including a number of self-portraits and the famous, uneasy portrait of her whole family together, Tove poised in black at the centre of the group. A room of paintings from her later career followed, including some beautiful interiors which have affinities with the work of Vanessa Bell, also shown at Dulwich in 2017. My favourite piece in this room was a semi-abstract seascape called “Westering”, haunting and beautiful. Her paintings strongly evoke dynamic motion and have a great deal of texture. In a still life of vegetables (fennel and onions) the tension between straight lines and curves gives these everyday objects a considerable dramatic quality. These paintings are quite large in scale, and the contrast with the next room was marked.
This room was devoted to Jansson’s illustrations for the work of other authors, particularly Alice in Wonderland and Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Her drawings for Alice, for those of us brought up on Tenniel’s upright black-and-white drawings, are revelatory, composed mainly of sinuous curves. The Mad Hatter is a relaxed, possibly slightly drunk figure, leaning companionably on the Dormouse; Alice swirls in spirals in the Pool of Tears. These works are quite tiny and precise in their execution, the opposite of abstraction.
Finally, the Moomins made their appearance. A room of sketches, showing how Jansson reworked little scenes again and again to get them right, made me think of the effort involved in this work. Jansson has incredible economy in her drawings, with just a few lines deployed to set a scene, show character, or tell a story. It was fascinating to see the notebook stage of the familiar drawings, and delightful to see the original set of Moomin figurines, developed in the sixties to satisfy the demands of Moomin-fans worldwide. The final room was dedicated to the comic strip Moomins – again, requiring massive work (which was taken over by Tove’s brother, interestingly, when she could no longer keep up with demand) and their excursions into other cultural forms. There were posters for Moomin plays, operas and exhibitions.
As well as her visual art, Tove Jansson wrote many books for an adult readership. These have been issued in English translations by Sort Of Books over the last few years in beautiful editions, and are hugely enjoyable to read. Her writing is spare, leaving space for the reader’s imagination; I always feel that she’s conveying, subtly and insinuatingly, a profound wisdom about what is worthwhile in life. The Summer Book is probably her best-known work, but my favourite is Fair Play. This draws on her own life with her partner, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä; the couple in the novel mimic the real-life arrangement where they had flats next door to each other, connected by a neutral attic space, both together and apart. Fair Play shows how two women can combine separate creative careers with a supportive and loving relationship. Jansson’s marvellous portrait of Tuulikki working at her desk appeared in the exhibition but I can’t find it online in usable form. Instead, here’s a photograph of them together.
The Dulwich exhibition is now over; there are some lovely reviews of it (with more pictures) at The Londonist and Plain. If you are interested in finding out more about Jansson, there is an authorised biography by Boel Westin which I enjoyed, although it is not written as a traditional biographical narrative, and jumps about a lot between the phases of Jansson’s life. There’s a good review of Westin’s book by Kate Macdonald if you want to find out more before starting. This illustrated biography looks fascinating and has gone on my wish list. There are lots of pictures to enjoy at tovejansson.com and moomin.com – the latter has an online shop for all your Moomin needs. Dulwich Picture Gallery is a delightful place and well worth a visit – they have excellent exhibitions and the main collection is also marvellous.