Tove Jansson, Smoking girl (Self portrait), 1940. Oil. © Tove Jansson Estate

Tove Jansson’s humane vision

A major Paris exhibition highlights timeless themes of the Finnish artist’s ouvre

Artillery Row On Art

“I want to be a wild thing, not an artist,” the author Tove Jansson (1914–2001) once wrote in her diary. This sentiment would influence her versatile and expansive career as an artist-writer and creator of the beloved Moomins series, a tale of a loveable troll family seeking adventure in Moominvalley.

Jansson’s spirit of fierce independence would lead her down an unconventional path, albeit one that attracted great success and fortune, particularly from the 1950s onwards. The exhibition Houses of Tove Jansson at The Community in Paris sheds light on the evolution of her work as an artist, revealing her life story and situating her work in dialogue with contemporary artists, notably Anne Bourse, Emma Kohlmann, Ida Ekblad, Vidya Gastaldon and Carlotta Bailly-Borg.

The thread running through the show is Jansson’s development of the Moomins, which emerged from a series of novels and later burgeoned into myriad other forms: a comic strip, TV series, film and today the enterprise Moomin Characters Ltd. Today she is a towering figure in the history of Scandinavian literature. In Helsinki and elsewhere in her native Finland, many of the city’s public spaces honour the legacy of the Moomins. There is even a Moomin-inspired theme park outside the Finnish town of Naantali.

Created in collaboration with the artist’s estate, the show aims to give audiences a clearer picture of her personality, as well as her lifelong inspiration from culturally diverse artistic sources. Significantly, the show displays recently discovered works and other rarely-seen artefacts, highlighting Jansson as a trailblazing yet complex figure who forged her own unconventional and defiant path.

Tove Jansson, Lynx Boa (Self-portrait), 1942. Oil. ©Tove Jansson Estate

In the cavernous open-plan space of The Community, the exhibition opens to a well-known self-portrait of the artist, Rökande Flicka (Smoking Girl) from 1940. A 26-year-old Jansson puffs on a cigarette with an air of nonchalance and cool sophistication — immediately we grasp her non-conforming spirit. Jansson knew from a young age that she would go against the grain in her personal life. On the topic of marriage, she once wrote to her friend Eva Konikoff that she “had no desire to have children, who would go on to die in the inevitable wars of men”.

Born in Helsinki in 1914, Tove Marika Jansson was raised by a liberal family of well-known Finnish artists. Her creative parents were formidable role models for her as a child. It is believed her central characters — Moominpapa, Moominamam and Moomintroll — were inspired by her own family. She spent much of her youth studying in cosmopolitan European cities, especially Helsinki, Stockholm and Paris — a city she had a particular fondness for and where her parents first met.

In 1938, she would move to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Despite the prestige of the school, her letters to her family reveal her disappointment. After two weeks she quit, complaining to her mother, “Beaux Arts was a place for having fun or hoping for the Prix de Rome, and possibly one gleaned some superficial technique to use in disguising one’s mediocre talents.” Nevertheless, the French capital undoubtedly offered her a newfound freedom, artistically and sexually. Whereas in Finland, homosexuality was illegal until 1972 and a number of high-profile cases prosecuting lesbianism peaked in the 1950s, Paris had always been the most liberal city with regards to expressions of queer sexuality — quite possibly it ignited introspection with regards to her own sexuality. Alongside her lifelong partner Tuuliki Pietila, Jansson would regularly return to Paris for the rest of her life.

Jansson’s tale of the Moomins promoted subtle, yet radical messages

As the show spotlights, from the age of 15 in 1929 Jansson was designing covers for the Finnish-Swedish satirical magazine, Garm, allowing her to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an illustrator and political cartoonist. It is where we see the emergence of the Moomin-like figure, which she called the “Snork”. It became her signature. She would go on to design costumes and stage settings for Finnish theatre, which resulted in a number of theatrical productions for children, including Comet in Moominland at Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre in 1949, directed by Vivica Bandler (one of her former lovers). From 1954 until 1974, the world’s largest newspaper, The Evening News, began to publish the comic strip. It reached up to 20 million readers daily and propelled her to international fame.

Jansson didn’t intend to lead a life of celebrity, though. Alongside Tuuliki, she spent much of her life on the remote Finnish island Klovharu in the Pellinki archipelago. The two women would spend over 30 summers together alone on the island, building a cabin in 1963. It was where Jansson could live and work in an uninhibited way. She escaped into her private and imaginative universe, expanding upon the magical world that informed the Moomins. The sea, shore and coastline regularly appear in many works and artefacts included in the exhibition, from sketches of the cover of Moominpappa at Sea (1965) to her celebrated novel, The Summer Book (1972), which is soon to be turned into a film starring Glenn Close.

The exhibition successfully illustrates that Jansson’s curious approach to life informed her work and vivid interior world. We fully comprehend the breadth of her artistic practice, which never conformed to one medium or style — she was an experimentalist, led first and foremost by her whimsical and unrestrained imagination. The show at the Community is both informative and charming, though to place Jansson’s work alongside contemporary artists in each separate section can at times feel a little contrived. The contemporary artist who appears to have the strongest aesthetic alignment with Jansson is perhaps Emma Kohlmann, whose colourful large-scale watercolours using sumi ink echo another early self-portrait by Jansson in the room upstairs.

Jansson’s prose and pictures are imbued with a humane vision that continues to spark joy in both children and adults around the world. Her tale of the Moomins promoted subtle, yet radical messages of acceptance, kindness and tolerance. Like her expressed desire to be “a wild thing”, she spent her life as an artist on her own terms: striving for originality and authenticity and never resorting to conformism.

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