TO MARK the centenary of Finland’s independence, the Dulwich Picture Gallery (DPG) has joined the Finnish National Gallery, the Ateneum, in Helsinki, to present the first comprehensive retrospective of the creator of Moominland to a British audience. It follows a popular centenary show that in 2014 travelled from Helsinki to Japan.
This is an astute move that is likely to draw a wide range of happy visitors. Much as any concert programme that includes Sibelius will win hearts, so this show, mounted with the DPG’s rigorous attention to scholarship, offers its fair share of lollipops. But much more as well, much of it for an adult audience, as her own novels and short stories later proved a darker — and richer — side.
Finnish National Gallery/Jenni NurminenCartoon: part of a comic strip by Tove Jansson, Moomin on the Riviera, 1955, from the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent
Tove Jansson was born under the Tsarist rule in 1914, and died in 2001. In a complex painting of her family, seen grouped around her in a strained and slightly tense group portrait of 1942, she portrays herself as a widow in black. Her brothers play chess as if mapping out the course of the war, while her mother and father, both in artist’s smocks, seem indifferent to the fateful world around them. Per had been called up to serve in the war, and is dressed in uniform while the younger brother, Lars, who would later form the commercial arm of his sister’s prolific output, is lost in schoolboy thoughts.
Her father was a noted sculptor, Viktor Jansson, and her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was an illustrator who designed many of Finland’s first postage stamps. Becoming a painter, which is what Tove always wanted to be, was therefore something that her family supported. With the freedom of the 1930s, she was educated in Sweden, Helsinki, and later Paris; so it is no surprise to find Matisse present in her choice of palette colours for her later paintings.
The first room shows some unexceptional self-portraits in which we meet a brisk woman, happy to paint on a large scale and confident in handling compositions. The smaller works are fantasy paintings from the 1930s. The Picnic, for instance, shows a summertime gathering in July 1934 by the open sea. It has the eerie lighting in surrounding trees and bushes that one associates with the famed White Nights of high summer.
Finnish National Gallery/Jenni NurminenSatirising Hitler: Tove Jansson’s cover for Garm No. 10, 14 October 1938, from a private collection
By the age of 25 she was contributing satirical drawings to a liberal Swedish-language political journal, called Garm after the black dog of hell in Scandinavian legend. In 1938, she satirised the Führer, showing him seated on a throne on a swastika-covered daïs between a Viking-helmeted warrior and a wealthy businessman, who are sitting on barrels of dynamite. The Chancellor plucks the petals of a daisy: “Skall. Skall icke. Skall.”
In another cover design from the same year, she depicts him as a screaming brat unable to get enough cake. Slices lie at his feet — Yugoslavia, Romania, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, Switzerland, South Jutland. The insatiable monster is about to consume Belgium and Holland, which are being served to him on plates by a waitress.
At the outbreak of the Winter War of 30 November 1940, she mocked Stalin sheathing his sword, and in October 1944 she showed Hitler seizing Christmas toys and forcing Santa’s reindeer into labour. But it was also during the war that Jansson first developed a family of characters for which she is universally known.
The original story of the Moomins was not all lightness and joy, with hints of the apocalypse that the sack of Helsinki had shown her and the fear that a post-war world might not be free.
After only six months, a socialist publisher dropped the cartoon series as being too bourgeois. What was Finland’s loss would become London’s gain, although from 1960 until 1975 the strip in The Evening News was her brother’s work.
A sickeningly pink-walled gallery, like a child’s nursery in the 1970s, has a display of figurines and sketches for her books. This room is next to the mausoleum that, for the course of the exhibition, has been turned into a snug with cushions on the ground; at this rate, I worry that for any Manet show, the DPG will make the tombs serve as the bar of the Folies Bergères.
The artist herself was not above bad taste, either: the 1980s poster for Amnesty International in the final room has her unlocking the Moomins from a cage.
Finnish National Gallery/Yehia EweisAlice meets the caterpillar: an illustration by Tove Jansson for an edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1966, from the Moomin Museum, Tampere Art Museum Moominvalley Collection
“Tove Jansson 1914-2001” is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 28 January 2018. Phone 020 8693 5254.