Tove Jansson in her studio. Photo: Wikimedia/Reino Loppinen

The dark side of the Moomins

The cartoon trolls are a children's favourite. But, as a new exhibition reveals, they haunted their creator
October 10, 2017

As a child, I heartily disliked the Moomins. A well-meaning aunt bought me Tove Jansson’s book, Finn Family Moomintroll, but the bulbous, mild-mannered, hippopotamus-like Moomins and their extended social circle of fantastical beings, who all seemed to be either tiny, spiky and furious, or vast, amorphous and depressed, failed to cast the expected spell. Instead of being captivated, I was overcome by a feeling that I hadn’t yet acquired the language to express. These days I would call it dread.

Much later, as a parent in search of books for my own child, I was at last beguiled by the Moomins’ strange charm. But my initial reaction was perhaps not entirely perverse. In the first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, written in the shadow of the Second World War, Moominmamma tells her son, Moomintroll, stories of her youth, when Moomins lived behind the stoves in people’s houses. “Did the people know we were there?” asks Moomintroll. “Some did,” replies his mother. “They felt us mostly as a cold draught on the back of their necks sometimes—when they were alone.”

The cold draught on the back of the neck is an unmistakable feature of Jansson’s work across a wide range of media. In her illustrations and political cartoons, her paintings and her later writing for adults—as well as the Moomin stories that made her an international celebrity—there exists an unsettling tension between safety and danger, the comfort of the familiar and a yearning for adventure, the potent tug of nostalgia and the risky allure of an uncertain future.

Jansson herself was not immune to the Moomin chill. The little creatures sprang into existence when as a girl she drew one as a caricature of the philosopher Immanuel Kant on the wall of an outside lavatory at her parents’ summer house above the slogan “Freedom is the best thing.” They later developed into a subversive alter-ego, often appearing in miniature in her early work as a kind of visual signature. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Moomins began to appear as subjects in their own right, sometimes sinister—a 1934 watercolour, painted during a trip to Germany, shows a red-eyed black Moomin pacing the streets of a deserted town—more often consoling, with their resilient and inclusive bonds of family, love and tolerance that resist all catastrophe.

Although Jansson was gratified by the early success of the Moomin stories, she regarded them initially as a “half-forbidden, pleasure-tinged hobby”—an entertaining distraction from her real artistic vocation. But in the 1950s, as the Moomins prepared to join the select group of fictional characters—Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter—who have become permanent residents in the imaginations of children across the world, their creator’s feelings underwent an anguished reversal. “My life with Moomintroll has begun to resemble a very worn-out marriage,” she wrote in 1959. “Now I draw Moomins with a feeling that is starting to resemble hatred, and sometimes... I stand before my own work [of painting] as if it were a closed door.”

In 2014 a centenary exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, curated by Jansson’s biographer, Tuula Karjalainen, brought together for the first time all the disparate elements of her work: cartoons, comic strips, illustrations to The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, frescos for public buildings including Helsinki City Hall, theatre and ballet design and film animation, as well as portraits, self-portraits and still-lifes.

On 25th October a new exhibition of 150 works will open at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London—the first major UK retrospective of Jansson’s work.

From the moment of her conception in Paris in 1913, Jansson’s destiny was never in doubt. Her parents, the Finnish sculptor Viktor Jansson—“Faffan” to his family—and his Swedish-born wife, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, known as Ham, met as art students in Paris in 1910. On their return to Helsinki Victor pursued his career as a sculptor, while Ham gave up her own artistic ambition to support the family, working as an illustrator, cartoonist and designer of postage stamps and bank notes.

Though the family’s financial situation was precarious, Jansson later told her friend and lover, the theatre director Vivica Bandler, that she had been brought up “to feel sorry for all the people who weren’t artists.” A photograph from 1915 shows one-year-old Tove sitting on her mother’s lap at a desk, watching attentively as she draws. “Maybe we’ll have a great artist in Tove one day,” Viktor wrote to Ham in 1918.

Jansson disliked school, devoting her energy to drawing and producing illustrated books. At 13, she sold her first illustrated story to the weekly magazine, Allas Kronika and a year later, her first cartoon appeared in the weekly magazine Garm, for which she would later produce wartime cartoons so bitterly critical of Hitler and Stalin that her editor came close to being charged with “insulting the head of a friendly state” (Germany). In 1930, aged 15, she left school to study art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, and the Ateneum in Helsinki.

The 1930s were a period of creative upheaval in the Finnish art world, with ideas from European modernism challenging the old conventions. But the greatest artistic influence on Jansson at this time were her travels in Europe. She studied in Paris, where she discovered the Impressionists (Matisse would also become a lifelong influence) and avoided the intrigues of her fellow Finnish art students with the independence that would lead her to keep a distance from groups and movements throughout her life.

While Jansson’s early artworks are characterised by the fantastical, fairy-tale atmosphere that would become a distinctive element of the Moomin books, her paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s are strongly influenced by Impressionism. This was a period of personal and artistic crisis for Jansson. Appalled by the war—“a men’s war!” she wrote—she was beset by violent disagreements with her father, anxiety about her brother, Per Olov, who was serving on the northern front, and questions about her relationship with her lover, the artist Tapio Tapiovaara, also a serving soldier, who longed to have a child with her.

“I can see what would happen to my work if I married,” she wrote. “I would either be a bad painter or a bad wife.” She was acutely conscious of her mother’s sacrifice of her creative life. Jansson’s ambitious group portrait of 1942, The Family, is an eloquent portrait of a family in conflict. At the centre her two younger brothers, Lasse, and Per Olov in  military uniform, play chess—a reference to an image of Death playing chess with a knight by the 15th-century Swedish painter, Albertus Pictor.

Her parents, both in artists’ smocks, are placed to the left and right of their children. Ham, smoking a cigarette, seems to look across at Faffen, whose gaze is fixed on the far distance. None of the individuals makes eye contact. All seem locked in their own private worlds. Tove stands between her brothers in black coat and fur hat, her glance sidelong, her expression grim, her gloved hands held at waist height in an odd gesture, like that of the child she would later describe in her volume of autobiographical short stories, Sculptor’s Daughter, who holds his hands in front of him “as if he were afraid of being attacked or was apologising to someone.”

When the painting was exhibited in 1942, the response was lukewarm. The artist Ina Colliander described it as “a diligent piece of work, but with no self-esteem.” Stung by the criticism, Jansson refused to exhibit the painting again. Later that year she moved out of the family home into her own studio, writing to a friend, “I’m free, free!” Soon afterwards she began work on the striking self-portrait reproduced on the cover of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition catalogue, The Lynx Boa. In the three-quarter-length portrait she looks past the spectator, her gaze mirrored by the beady eyes of the lynx stole around her neck. “I look like a cat in my yellow fur, with cold slanting eyes,” Jansson wrote. “I don’t know yet if it’s good or bad. I just paint.” A year later the painting was included in her first one-woman show. She was, wrote one critic, “an artist who knew where she was going.”

Seldom can a critical judgment have been more extravagantly mistaken. Struggling to find inspiration during the war years, Jansson took refuge in her Moomin stories, publishing her first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood in 1945, followed by Comet in Moominland, an allegory of war, in 1946 and her breakthrough book, The Hobgoblin’s Hat (published in English as Finn Family Moomintroll) in 1948. In 1947 she began publishing a Moomin comic strip in the periodical Ny Tid, edited by her lover, Atos Wirtanen, who appears in Comet in Moominland as the philosophical Muskrat, lolling in a hammock with a well-thumbed copy of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West beside him.

In 1952 Jansson was approached by a syndication manager for the British newspaper group, Associated Press, with an offer of a seven-year contract to supply Moomin cartoon strips. The series began on 20th September 1954, and by the time her brother, Lars, took over in 1960, Moomins had become a global phenomenon. The Moomin worldview would be earnestly debated in universities, criticised by the New Left for “middle-class escapism” and “illusory security” and eventually concluded by Jansson in 1970 with the publication of the valedictory Moominvalley in November. Seventy-odd years after the Moomins first entered their valley, their stories of transformation, acceptance and courage in the face of catastrophe seem as fresh and pertinent as ever.

In 1947, as a young artist living in the shadow of war, Tove designed for herself a bookplate featuring a number of personal motifs, including a Moomin, and the (slightly ungrammatical) motto, Labora et Amare (Work and Love). Throughout her long life (she died in 2001, aged 86) she held fast to that motto. She loved both men and women, at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal in Finland, before meeting her life partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä in 1955. And she was resolute in seeking delight in her work, the creative impulse alight until the very end. Asked at 80 to reflect on her life, she said that she was very happy with it—and that if she were able to live it all over again, she would do everything quite differently.