Best known for her creation of the Moomins, Tove Jansson is one of the most highly regarded and recognisable illustrators of the twentieth century. Her hippo-like creatures, who inhabit a curious world in Moominvalley with a variety of other personalities, evolved from a series of illustrated books into an international phenomenon, with the characters appearing in tableware, posters, figurines, and even television series and plays. Jansson enjoyed great success from her creation, but was keen not be defined solely by her illustrative work. The daughter of two artists, she was also a talented painter who worked with a variety of different media throughout her long career.
Jansson’s versatility and breadth of output is the focus of a new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, constituting the first major retrospective of the artist in the UK. In five vibrant and colourful rooms, one hundred and fifty of Jansson’s works are displayed, with intricate illustrations presented alongside paintings and cartoons, revealing the extent of her talent and the multifaceted nature of her character.
Among the most striking works in the exhibition is a series of five self-portraits by Jansson in the first room, painted when she was in her late twenties. In each work, Jansson strikes a different pose, gazing into a mirror while smoking in Per il mio carissima (Self Portrait) (1939), her hands confidently placed on her hips in Woman (Self-Portrait) (1942), and standing serenely with a fur draped over her shoulders in Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942).
Each portrait displays and celebrates an arresting and independent woman, whose strength and intelligence is made compellingly apparent. This is further explored in a display case in the centre of the room which features Jansson’s illustrations and cover pages for Garm, a Finnish satire magazine. The cartoons, produced during the Second World War, openly mock Hitler and Stalin, revealing Jansson’s pacifist beliefs and her conviction that war brought nothing but destruction and despair. Several of the cover pages feature a small creature placed next to her signature, the first manifestation of the protagonist of the Moomins, Moomintroll, and another version of a self-portrait, with Jansson frequently describing the creature as her alter-ego.
Whilst the Moomin stories are uniquely identified with Jansson, the third room of the exhibition celebrates a different aspect of her career as an illustrator. Following a display of large-scale abstract paintings of the sea, rocks and still lifes in the second room, the viewer is drawn into a display of tiny, delicate illustrations of classics children’s books. The sheer difference in scale between the works of the two rooms emphasises Jansson’s range as an artist, with strong broad brushstrokes replaced by delicate ink lines and monumental canvases exchanged for tiny squares of paper.
A number of works are displayed here, including Jansson’s illustrations for J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The sketches, drawings, and narrative layouts, some in colour and others in black and white, are captivating and clearly establish the magnitude of Jansson’s imagination. A particularly engrossing work is a sheet of sketches for Alice in Wonderland (1966) featuring a number of different animals, from dodos to parrots to lemurs. It is both amusing and enchanting, plainly demonstrating her expert use of line.
This is a fascinating exhibition which offers a unique opportunity to view a multitude of different works by Jansson, including a significant number of material related to the Moomins. It presents an enthralling glimpse into not only Jansson’s practice as a painter and storyteller but also her intriguing character and vivid imagination. What is made intensely apparent is the extent to which the Moomin stories reflected Jansson’s strong personal beliefs, her values of tolerance and diversity, as well as other aspects of her character and the personalities of close family and friends. Although a small exhibition, it offers much variety for the viewer and clearly reveals Jansson’s immense talent, versatility and creativity.
Words by Amy Parrish
Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London until 28 January 2018