The Moomin magician: celebrating Tove Jansson’s boundless creativity
The creator of an entire world, Tove Jansson was an artist and author, but also a commercial illustrator, lettering artist, designer and hobbyist extraordinaire – as a new exhibition explores.
You might think the Moomins are a fictional family of trolls. But there is a picture of its creator Tove Jansson with a real Moominhouse, dwarfing her by about a foot. The facade is impressive, with its carefully layered wooden slats and shingles, but peek around the back and you’ll find a lovingly recreated Moominhouse interior too, with enough miniature furniture and tiny characters to transcend make believe and become wonderfully real.
Tove Jansson worked on this model Moominhouse for three years in the 1970s with her life partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson (Ham), and Pentti Eistola, a local doctor. A tight group spent each Saturday on the mammoth construction and when smaller jobs became available, they let the children in the family join in. Naturally, they saved the most fun tasks for themselves. “Our friends kept asking, ‘what are they doing?’” Eistola once said. The group of adults were playing, armed with homemade toys and their imagination.
Until now, many of Jansson’s creative works and escapades, from model-building to paintings, have remained eclipsed by her legacy as the creator of the loveable franchise, the Moomins. A new exhibition in Paris, Houses of Tove Jansson, attempts to paint a more total portrait of the artist, from her life as a queer woman in Helsinki and on the tiny Finnish island of Klovharun, to her enduring impact on contemporary artists.
Tove, born into a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland in 1914, took after her mother and father, a graphic artist and sculptor respectively. Her mother in particular made a formative impact on Tove’s own hugely influential style. Among other things, Ham designed stamps, which entailed tiny, detailed illustration work. “You can see that she learned this skill of putting a lot of story and detail into a very small space,” the creative director of Moomin Characters, James Zambra says. It endowed her illustrations with a graphic quality which would become more and more simplified over the years – a Moomin after all, could be drawn with but a few strokes and a confident hand.
Like any freelance creative, Jansson took on numerous gigs to pay the bills. It is within these projects where we can see her ability also as a commercial illustrator and cartoonist, meeting a clearly defined brief while maintaining her own tone of voice. One such example is The Hobbit. In 1962, Jansson would provide illustrations for a Swedish edition of the famous J.R.R. Tolkien book, followed by Alice in Wonderland in 1966. The tell-tale signatures of her work could still be spotted, forever a marvel when it came to composing characters, establishing narrative, and hiding rich details in the corners of a scene.
“You can see that she learned this skill of putting a lot of story and detail into a very small space.”James Zambra
“The great thing with Tove as an illustrator is that she was so versatile, so technically brilliant and clearly considered illustration as an art form of its own,” says Sara Ehnholm Hielm, who works frequently with children’s books and illustrators as founding publisher at Förlaget in Helsinki, Finland. “Tove’s legacy is huge, and for a while weighed so heavily that few Finnish-Swedish artists dared to work as illustrators, but they were mostly of her own generation. Today there is no living and working illustrator in Finland whose work is not influenced by her, and for many she is an icon. Already her very first picture book The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1952), with cutout pages through the whole book, was so radical and inventive that at least in Finland it has taken 70 years for someone to try to follow, as we did this year with the picture book Konkarongen by Linda Bondestam and Laura Ruohonen.”
You could say some of the success of the Moomins also lies in Tove’s skill as a businesswoman. “I think she was definitely quite savvy when it came to building a brand,” James says. A lot of this ability was also inherited from her mother, and the lessons she taught in balancing fine art with this “commercial side of doing creative work to live, to be constantly churning out illustrations”.
“She was so versatile, so technically brilliant and clearly considered illustration as an art form of its own.”Sara Ehnholm Hielm
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Tove Jansson: Bilbo, En Hobbit’s Äventyr (Bilbo, A Hobbit’s Adventure) by J.R Tolkien (Copyright © Tove Jansson Estate, 1962)
When we begin to think of Tove as a designer of a brand, her lettering comes to mind. In a 1974 poster for a Moomin Opera – Tove frequently worked in theatre, designing costumes and stage settings for Moomin productions and other plays – you can find one of her typefaces, which features flared accents that encase troll-like features. “It’s something she did quite a lot,” says James. “When you’re thinking about Moomins as a brand, it’s very handy that she actually hand drew so many different very distinct typefaces and lettering which makes it very kind of easy for us to pick something and develop it [today] and it is very naturally Moomin.”
Despite their gentle aura, the Moomins are an immense franchise. Almost a century on, the original nine books have spawned countless adaptations, with over 800 licensees worldwide and a theme park in Hanno, Japan. It’s hard to imagine then that the first Moomin character was sketched onto the wall of an outhouse when Tove was young. It was called a Snork and was originally quite scary, “thin and red-eyed, a kind of demon,” says Houses curator Sini Rinne-Kanto. (Trolls were an important part of Nordic mythology and they filled the works of Swedish illustrator and author Elsa Beskow along with gnomes and elves, an “important reference for Tove,” Sini adds.)
“I think she was definitely quite savvy when it came to building a brand.”James Zambra
The Moomins began popping up in the background of early Tove watercolours and commissions for magazines in the 1930s, long before she committed the first Moomin book to paper in 1945. Even after this point, Moomintroll would crop up unexpectedly in other work she produced, hiding in self portraits, for example. These works offer a small window into Tove’s boundless practice. Her creations all informed each other and she weaved together her knowledge of different mediums to complete each project.
She also used this creativity more simply to entertain herself and her loved ones. On the second floor of Houses of Tove Jansson, there is a glass cabinet full of cassette tapes. Tove and Tuulikki often used to record songs from the radio or sounds from Klovharun (the tiny island where they famously set up shop in later life). Then they’d illustrate the sleeves together. One tape, recorded in London in 1982, features a funny sketch of a gentle looking punk. Without a doubt, fun and play were some of the guiding principles of Tove’s work, an ethos that James says Moomin Characters tries to hold onto to this day.
“Today there is no living and working illustrator in Finland whose work is not influenced by her.”Sara Ehnholm Hielm
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Tove Jansson: Bildhuggaren’s Dotter (Sculptor’s Daughter) (Copyright © Tove Jansson Estate, 1968)
Since her death in 2001, many writers have pointed out that Jansson lived in the plump shadow of Moomintroll at various points throughout her career, curtailing her work as a fine artist. It’s true, even Jansson herself expressed this feeling: “I no longer feel safe in my secret cave. It’s trapping me inside,” she wrote in a diary in 1957.
Houses of Tove Jansson still weaves Moomins throughout the space – there is no way to look at Jansson’s practice without their presence. But, its curators also bring together new commissions from contemporary artists she inspired, placing them alongside film footage, photographs, unseen works and archival objects from her long career. Through this lens, Jansson is no longer just the Moomin author. We see the plethora of other skills, ideas and side ventures that make her work so wholly unique. If you’re in Paris this month, we’d recommend the trip.
Lars and Tove Jansson: poster for environmental campaign in Sweden (Copyright © Moomin Characters, 1970s)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.