Children's books

A chance to see the Moomins’ creator for the genius she really was: Tove Janssons reviewed

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

Tove Jansson, according to her niece’s husband, was a squirt in size and could rarely be persuaded to eat, preferring instead to smoke fags and drink whisky. And when she did eat, it was usually salted cucumbers — to go with the drink. You know, this late in life, I may have encountered my role model.

We were at the launch of an excellent edition of four books in her Moomin series at the Finnish embassy. London is in the grip of a kind of Moomin madness right now, what with the books, a Moomin event at the South Bank and a new exhibition of Tove Jansson’s artwork at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Which is good news for Finland, on account of the Moomins being one of its two big cultural exports — the other being Santa Claus, who obviously lives in Lapland.

Tove, according to her niece Sophie, invested something of herself in all her Moomin characters — though Moominmama was squarely based on her mother — and particularly in Little My. I was glad to hear it: Little My, with her amorality, diabolical grin and ruthless instinct for survival, is fabulous. But the wonder of the Moomins is that with so little back story and so few explanations, readers can be drawn so strongly to them and the strange, familiar, compelling creatures that populate their world. We enter that world as if we know it has always existed. The pictures go with the story and tell the story. Tove Jansson was a master of clear line — just marvel at the lovely rounded edge of Moomin’s snout — and as a draughtsman was, I reckon, up there with Hergé, creator of Tintin.

The exhibition of her work at Dulwich is small but compelling, each room given a striking colour, with a little room in the middle for children to play in. But then, as this exhibition makes clear, she was a good colourist. We forget, with our familiarity with the eerie black-and-white drawings of the books, that she was a painter too: her self-portraits, with her slanting eyes and unreadable gaze, fag in hand, are among the most striking exhibits.

She was born to be an artist: her father was a sculptor, her mother a designer; she learned to paint in her mother’s arms. But she was, as you’d expect from the assured simplicity of her drawings, well trained. She studied at art schools in Stockholm, Helsinki and Paris — where she admired the impressionists and Matisse. Her early paintings are unremarkable; it’s when you encounter some unmistakably Moominish characters tucked up under a tree root that you recognise something quite distinctive.

But her early work as a graphic artist was eye-catching. Her illustrations for the covers of the wartime Garm magazine were courageous for the time in which they appeared — she wasn’t to know how the war would turn out. Hitler and Stalin appear as preposterous little figures, self-important and comic. She was proud to lampoon them both. Stalin pulls out a sword from his scabbard only to find it a tiny little blade; Hitler sets fire to a house, then loots the contents and piles potatoes on to a baffled reindeer’s back. Mermaids, from the summit of a wave, gaze appalled at a mine in the water. This is skilful political cartooning.

The Moomin books were conceived in war: the first two were set in a time of disaster — The Moomins and the Great Flood (involving the disappearance of Moominpappa) and Comet in Moominland. Yet from the start the Moomins are conspicuous both for their unshakeable family bond, and for their hospitality to creatures from outside. They were to make an early appearance in the Evening News — now amalgamated into the Evening Standard — as a comic strip.

But they weren’t Tove Jansson’s only work and in this exhibition the revelation is her excellent illustrations for The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll; in both, she brings out their darker aspect. The Hobbit does indeed have a Nordic aspect and Tove Jansson does it justice, especially the dragon and trolls and goblin mountain. In her drawings for ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, the fantastical element is invested with due solemnity. As for Alice, the creepiness of the story gets its due.

The original illustrations for Moominland Midwinter are here — the book my father read to me as a child. He used to make my flesh creep with the Dweller Under the Sink. These are scary books; there’s something about the shadows she creates with sharp little vertical lines that suggest things out there in the snow. But there’s fun, too, in the posters for the stage versions of the stories.

The Moomins have been tamed through wholesale commercialisation and dire book spin-offs for younger children. This is a chance to see their creator for the genius she really was.

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