“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent – never lose your invaluable curiosity and let yourself die. It’s as simple as that, no?”
Tove Jansson is most famous as creator and writer of the much loved Moomin children’s books. I grew up with Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden, the Hemulen and the Hattifatteners and I still treasure my original dog-eared set. When I heard there was going to be a major exhibition of Tove Jansson’s work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I leapt at the chance to attend the preview. What I wasn’t expecting was how much more there was to the Finnish artist than her brilliant children’s books. A free-spirited, strong character born in 1914, the daughter of two artists, Tove was an amazing painter, portraitist, as well as a satirical cartoonist, and prolific writer.
Sophia Jansson, Tove’s niece, gave a fascinating talk, and told us how her aunt was a fearless person, who travelled around Europe alone when she was still a teenager – not usual for young girls at that time. “She had a bold, take-me-on attitude,” said Sophia. Tove was drawing from the earliest age, and as young as 15, she was producing caricatures for the satirical political magazine, Garm. It’s a far cry from the cuteness of the Moomin’s world, and makes her even more interesting in my eyes.
That’s not to suggest that this exhibition is too serious. In fact, it has been staged in a really attractive way, the different rooms painted in technicolour shades to match the incredible colours that Tove frequently used in her work. There’s a story space to settle down with sheepskin rugs and stacks of Moomin books. I also liked the cut out characters dotted around the gallery inside the exhibition space, and outside…it would be a fabulous place to bring children. You can view what’s here on many levels.
I like this feisty one! And the Snork Maiden, always a favourite…
Yet underlying the playfulness is the sense that Tove was a complex person. She painted a number of self portraits which depict her with fierce, slanted eyes, almost cold looking, although perhaps they’re just super observant.
She was a perfectionist, often making as many as 20 sketches to produce one picture. You can get a sense of her process in some of the pictures on display.
I do love to see inside an artist’s sketchbook. It’s amazing how each picture tells a little story. Every tiny sketch is expressive. That was part of her talent. It was said that she inherited the tradition of Nordic storytelling from her mother Signe Hammarsten.
Tove worked in a studio in Helsinki, but since her childhood, she loved to spend time by the sea. She spent summers on the tiny island of Klovharu in the Gulf of Finland. She often went there with her life partner Tuulikki Pietila. I think this picture of Tove swimming in the sea in a garland sums it up:
The final room in the exhibition is a magical one, as the walls are decorated with huge, blown up pictures from the Moomin storybooks, all using those careful, brilliant black and white lines that Jansson was famous for. It also includes comic strips, and gorgeous posters that she produced for a variety of good causes such as Keep Sweden Clean and Amnesty International, which reflect her humanitarian values and her belief in equal rights. Sophia Jansson said yesterday: “Tove was productive, multi talented and fearless as an artist. I hope the exhibition gives an insight into who she was as an artist, and as a human being.” It really does.
The gallery shop is stocked with all sorts of Moomin and Tove Jansson goodies. These little wooden figures are charming (the glass buoy reminds me of one of my favourite chapters in Finn Family Moomintroll when the Moomins go beach combing. I always loved it and reckon my own love of beach combing started right there!). There are also Moomin Christmas garlands, books, tea towels, posters, prints and ceramics.
The gallery cafe is an excellent place to have home made soup (I recommend the lentil and coconut :)) , or tea and scones afterwards.
I took a train to West Dulwich, just ten minutes from Victoria, and there are clear signs from the station to the gallery. It’s a short walk away.
What a wonderful way to spend an autumn afternoon.
Tove Jansson (1914-2001)
October 25 2017 – January 2018
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Rd, London SE21 7AD
10am-5pm Tuesday – Sunday. Admission £15.50 adults, concessions £7, children and carers free.