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Tove Jansson (c) Per Olov Jansson

Tove Jansson 1914-2001 at Dulwich Picture Gallery

1 November 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Though Tove Jansson might not be a household name in the UK, she is one of Finland’s most important people; in fact, she was named 2nd most influential figure in a survey for Finland’s centenary, second only to the composer Sibelius.

Jansson is probably best known for the creation of the world of the Moomins, the internationally acclaimed children’s books and cartoon characters. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first UK retrospective of her work, including her paintings and early sketches.  Though the exhibition gives ample space to the Moomins, as one might expect, there plenty of other intriguing works on display, demonstrating not only her skill in multiple areas, but also her commitment to her career as an artist.

Jansson was brought up in a family of artists: her father, Viktor Jansson, was a sculptor, and her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson was an illustrator and designer.  From an early age, she was exposed to art and the life of an artist through the influence and encouragement of her parents, particularly her mother.  As a young woman, she studied art in several countries, in institutes in Stockholm, Helsinki and Paris. She was also allowed to travel alone in Europe, through France and Germany, where she developed a love of painting, particularly of Matisse. The exhibition includes some of her early work, already demonstrating her interest in some of the themes she later became known for through the Moomins: fantastical worlds, surrealism, and mythology.  Her early painting, Mysterious Landscape (1930s) which normally hangs in Ateneum Art Museum, shows her fascination in dark worlds, as well as playful shapes and fantastical settings, reminiscent of her contemporary and fellow surrealist Leonora Carrington. At the same time, the painting suggests a narrative through the long and narrow shape of the canvas.  This work shows Jansson already playing with genre, exploring the possibility of settings and building worlds.


Image credit: detail from Mysterious Landscape (1930s) Tove Jansson

Though narrative and story were definitely part of her artistic DNA, the exhibition also includes other forms of painting in a variety of styles. As she got older, she became interested in different forms of painting, particularly the self-portrait - of which there are five on display. In each she depicts the multiplicities of her own identity, painting one in a style reminiscent of Gaugin and another using smaller, pencil like strokes.  Both Smoking Girl (1940) and Lynx Boa (1942) show her defiantly looking out of the frame, her unusual eyes fixed on the viewer. In another, Woman (1942), she stands with her head held high, looking powerful and unapologetic. These images speak to Jansson’s strength and ambition.

There is also a particularly interesting portrait of her family from 1942. It was a complex undertaking, in which Jansson got each member of her family to sit individually to make a composite painting.  She is at the centre of the image, dressed strikingly in all black, as if in mourning. Other members of the family are dressed in other forms of uniform: her parents wear artist smocks and one of her brother wears military uniform.  The family stands apart from one another, looking serious and grim; both brothers play chess in the foreground, relating the horrors of war with the trivialities of a game. The painting suggests both the tensions and difficulties present in the relationships between the family members, but also makes a larger comment on the historical moment, in which conflict invaded every home.


Image credit: Family (1942) Tove Jansson

Part of the conflict in that painting lay in Jansson’s commitment to left-wing politics and her rejection of national narratives; at the time of painting she socialised with bohemians, artists and communists, much to the chagrin of her father. The exhibition highlights Jansson’s interest in politics from a young age. At age 15, for example, she was already illustrating liberal magazine Garm; in her time with the magazine she drew more than 100 front cover images for them. On display are some of the most political of these covers. As Jansson became better-known for her illustrations and the Moominvalley, she secreted her politics and comments about her own life into the narratives, including her thoughts on racism, the environmental and on gay relationships. Later in life, Jansson maintained her commitment to left-wing politics by only licensing out the Moomins to causes she agreed with, such as Amnesty International, or environmental programmes. 

In the last three rooms of the exhibition, there is plenty for the Moomin fan, including sketches, smaller illustrations and some examples of the cartoons she drew for the London Evening News for many years. One touching aspect of the exhibition are the sketches and practice drawings on display in these rooms: Jansson was extremely precise, with an eye for exacting detail. In these sketches, the viewer notices not only her skill, but the underlying dedication behind each piece she produced. She has remarkable skill in producing expressive images through the use of only a few lines. 


 Image credit: Moomin on the Riveria (c) Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson was a remarkable women in many ways. From not only the amount of work she produced, but her dedication to producing exacting high quality work across many different forms of art.  She has not only garnered millions of fans worldwide, including Scottish writer Ali Smith – who will be discussing Jansson’s novels as part of the Dulwich Literary Festival – but also proven the long lasting effects of unapologetic experimentation and exploration into the possibilities of art.

Tove Jansson is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until January 28 2018. Tickets are £15.50
 
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