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'Tove Jansson: Tales from the Nordic Archipelago' opens at the Institute of Contemporary Arts
Island living, Tove by Per Olov Jansson,1930. Courtesy the Finnish Institute in London.

LONDON.- To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001), the ICA will host an exhibition in the Fox Reading Room presenting original unseen photographs and material relating to her life and work, illustrated books and early first editions. Tove Jansson, an accomplished Finnish author and artist, had a life every bit as fascinating as her famous creations, The Moomins. Tove Jansson: Tales From the Archipelago draws an intimate portrait of the artist’s life on her private island in the archipelago of Finland, where she regularly spent the summer months with her female companion Tuulikki Pietilä and at her artist studio in Helsinki. Shot over a period of 60 years by her dear friend, renowned Finnish photographer C-G Hagström (b 1940) and her brother, photographer, Per Olov Jansson (b 1920), rare family photographs reveal a story of an extraordinary life. The exhibition will be curated by Susanna Pettersson, Director, and Animaya Grant, Head of Events at the Finnish Institute in London, with the ICA.

Tove Jansson was born on 9 August 1914 in the Katjanokka district of Helsinki and grew up in an artist family. Her father Viktor Jansson was a sculptor and her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson was a graphic designer and illustrator. Jansson studied art in Stockholm and Helsinki, and she also sought inspiration from Paris and Italy. In the late summer of 1944, Jansson rented an attic studio in the centre of the Helsinki at Ullanlinnankatu 1. The studio became her cherished home where she lived and worked in the autumn and winter. Summers were spent on the tiny island of Klovharu in the Gulf of Finland. Jansson loved the sea and the archipelago, which can be seen in her multifaceted art. Back in her studio in the heart of Helsinki she created her most renowned paintings and texts. It was here that Jansson finished her first book featuring Moomintroll. The studio would serve as her cherished home, a source of power and a haven for almost 60 years. Jansson is best known as the author of the Moomin books for children. The first such book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945, though it was the next two books, Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll, published in 1946 and 1948 respectively, that brought her fame.

Susanna Pettersson, Director of the Finnish Institute in London, discusses Tove Jansson: Tales from the Nordic Archipelago
Tove Jansson’s (1914–2001) life was just as exciting as her most famous character’s, the Moomins. Her multifaceted artistic career as a writer, visual artist and a cartoonist spanned more than seventy years – and she was loved the world over. Bold, fearless and pioneering, Tove believed in not compromising on her art.

Jansson grew up in an artist family, amid beautiful Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) blocks of flats in Helsinki’s Katajanokka. Her father was the sculptor Viktor Jansson and her mother the Swedish artist Signe Hammarsten. Their home was filled with sculptures and drawings. The family had three children: Lars, Tove and Per Olov. Per Olov became a photographer and Lars a Moomin drawer. Her father Viktor once said: “Our Tove will be a great artist one day. Really great!”

From the start of the 1920s onwards, Tove Jansson spent her summers in the Pellinki archipelago. She wrote and drew, chopped wood, sculpted, built dens, and thought about things. “Work and Love” was her most important motto, which she also had inscribed on the Ex-Libris bookplates she drew as a girl (1947).

Work and dreams took the young Tove Jansson to art schools in Stockholm and Helsinki, and on study trips to Germany and Paris. She painted landscapes, still lifes and portraits, and in doing so found her own mode of expression. Jansson was at her very best when painting self-portraits, in which the young artist takes the measure of the surrounding world. She also made drawings and did illustration work to earn her own living. She published her first illustrations when she was only 14. It was on the drawing board that the first little Moomintrolls appeared, too, their life in Moominvalley developing into comic strips, books, plays, and later also animated films. Apart from the lovable Moomin family, the characters include Little My, Snufkin, Sniff, and that master of taunts and mischief, Stinky.

Tove Jansson and the Moomins in London
It soon became clear that there was a demand for the Moomins outside of Finland, including in England. Painting now took a back seat. Tove Jansson signed her first long-term contract with London’s Evening News in 1952. The circumstances were unusual: Charles Sutton, syndication manager for Associated Newspapers, actually travelled to meet Jansson on Finland’s biggest and wildest spring celebration, May Day Eve.

“In the evening, May Day festivities at her studio, 20 people, a guitar and Finnish jallu brandy, an angry building manager, balloons and drinks and dancing and morning coffee, the whole works. And on top of that, on May 1st, a business lunch at Kämp – somewhat disrupted by the fact that the restaurant was full of singing high-school graduates dancing and shinning up the pillars, children playing, and the presence of a large contingent of the nocturnal guests. Mr. Sutton may have got a somewhat misleading impression of a merry Finland, but he did have fun.” (Westin 2008, 250)

The first Moomin comic strip appeared in the Evening News in September 1954. By this stage, several translations of Jansson’s books had already appeared in English (Finn Family Moomintroll 1950, The Happy Moomins 1951, Comet in Moominland 1951). The strip was published six days a week. She became an international star who was sought after everywhere. At its most prolific the strip appeared in some 120 daily papers in different parts of the world.

Working internationally required bold marketing. Moomin cars drove round London and Tove Jansson posed for the press, including on the back of an elephant at London Zoo. “Like climbing a hairy mountain without a ladder,” she said. Books appeared thick and fast. Jansson also got other illustrations jobs, including for Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1959) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1962).

Fame also had its other side. Business correspondence ate up time and energy. Rights to the Moomin figures were very much in demand, especially in the United States. Jansson, nevertheless, kept the reins in her own hands and chose her business partners carefully. For example, she politely declined an offer from Walt Disney.

An island of her own
A counterbalance to Jansson’s work-filled life was found in the beloved landscape of her childhood, in the archipelago. “Surprisingly many people dream of an island,” she wrote in 1961. She read D. H. Lawrence’s short story The Man Who Loved Islands, and considered being an islander as a way of life. Memories of childhood family excursions in the Pellinki archipelago reinforced the idea that Tove, too, wanted her very own island. At her side was her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä. In 1964, Jansson began building a cottage on Klovharu Island with local builders. She often called Klovharu an “angry island” – it was barren, windy, and the firewood and fresh water crucial for existence had to be brought from the mainland. On stormy nights, they had to take turns guarding the boat, so that it would not head off out to the open sea. Despite its resistance the island was much loved.

“I suppose I have rarely been as happy as I was during those weeks when the timbers were being put up, we hammered as if our lives depended on it! We slept in the Bredskär cottage (I, discretely in the loft) and early each morning we went over to Haru […] it was a stormy autumn, a constant 6 7 on the Beaufort scale. Gradually snow began to arrive. I made food for us on Haru, under a tarpaulin, mostly fish.” (Westin 2008, 331)

The cottage was completed and Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä’s hiding place became a much loved spot to visit for all their friends and relatives – including gatecrashers! Occasionally, there were too many visitors, and it was impossible to do any work. At such times, Tove fled to be among the rocks. She rolled and carried rocks to build stone benches and a stone shelter. She wrote about the rocks and painted them. This calmed her down.

“I love rock: the cliff that descends vertically to the sea and the high rock that you can’t climb, and the flint in my pocket, levering rocks out of the ground and rolling them out of the way, and when I let the biggest boulders bowl down from the high rock into the sea! When they rumble on their way, they leave a pungent smell of sulphur in the air.” Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä wrote about and drew their island experiences for a book, Haru, eräs saari (Haru – an island), 1996. The island and the closeness of the sea were also a powerful living presence in Tove Jansson’s literary production. Klovharu Island was a firm fixed point in Jansson and Pietilä’s life, the place where they spent their summers, to which they always returned after long journeys. These journeys varied from a round-the- world trip lasting eight months to spending a few months working in Paris, plus numerous work trips to different parts of the world.

In September 1991, Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä left Klovharu Island for the last time. As Jansson had written half a century earlier:

“That night, we went up onto the highest rock and saw the sea sparkling in the white moonlight. It was barely real – the island was like a moonscape or a dream.” (Westin 2008, 441)

Sources: Boel Westin 2008, Tove Jansson, Sanat, kuvat, elämä. Schildts.

Tuula Karjalainen 2013, Tee työtä and rakasta. Helsinki: Tammi.

Boel Westin 2014, trans. Silvester Mazzarella, Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography. Sort of Books

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