The cartoon trolls are a children's favourite. But, as a new exhibition reveals, they haunted their creatorby Jane Shilling / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.