You may have gathered by now that I have more than a healthy level of respect for the wonderful Tove Jansson. A recent BBC documentary, coupled with a re-reading of Fair Play and a convenient week’s holiday during which I would have no access to TV created a perfect opportunity to finally get around to reading this lovely biography of Jansson, written by Tuula Karjalainen (someone who had the pleasure of meeting Jansson, even though it was only once). Jansson was notoriously private, and yet her work tells her life story so nakedly that the suggestion of privacy is almost ridiculous. Jansson was an artist, brought up in the art world. Whether it is her writing or her painting, her comic strips or her illustrations, her life is open to us all; it is her bread and meat, her palette, it is the basis of everything she produced.
Beginning with her childhood and tracking through to her death, the format of this biography could be seen as conventional, however the focus on her work makes it more than just a plod through the years. Tove began working with her art as a very young woman, being only 14 years old when she sold her first illustration. From that point on she worked tirelessly, almost driving herself crazy with work. What Jansson wanted more than anything was to be an artist, she saw herself very much as a painter, yet what the book reveals is that her mania for work, and the realities of having to live and eat, and, perhaps, a more conservative and less risky approach to her art (perhaps because she desired it so deeply) meant that whilst she had some success her art is not what she’s remembered for. What she is remembered for, of course, is the Moomins. The Moomins have almost universal appeal, as described here:
“Over the passage of the years, the Moomins, like human beings, changed personality and looks, though they never became unrecognisable. Elements of Tove are present in every creature she created for the Moomin world. She is there in Snufkin’s longing for peace and quiet and a place of his own, as well as his love of nature. There are traits of her personality in the Hemulens’ conscientiousness and devotion to hard work, in the Fillyjonk’s endless longing and in Misabel’s infinite sorrow. Every reader can identify with the Groke’s desperate attempts at intimacy, especially at times when life does not go as it should and one feels that one’s friends are moving away. Or readers can see their own fears embodied in the figure of the Groke.”
As an admirer of the Moomins, and Tove of course, I can recognise the truth of that. Jansson’s work on the Moomins, popularised by the comic strips published in the Evening Standard, took over her life. They shaped her and shaped both her legacy and the course of her artistic output. They have reached millions upon millions of children and adults alike.
Of course this is not just a book about the Moomins, and one of the aspects that pleased me about the book was how much focus there was on the other aspects of her life: her artistic output and her relationships. That Tove had a wonderful relationship with her mother and a difficult relationship with her father is self-evident from her literary output, yet she loved her father and all of her family. This family portrait, which Tove expressed unhappiness with, reveals the impact of war, and the opposing views of it, on her family (and doubtless others).
The book charts Tove’s development as an artist, including the murals she created and the work, brave and challenging, that she did when illustrating satirical magazine Garm. Here is an example of a Garm cover mocking Hitler, at a time when Finnish sentiment was pre-disposed to be positive towards the Nazi’s.
Jansson, ever the humanist, already saw the threat of war and the damaging nature of the Nazi ideology. It was a view that never waivered, neither before nor during the war. Considering the positive nature of much of her work, it was surprising to read how often Tove was depressed, how unsettled by both the war and her inter-relationships which were often difficult. Jansson had a number of relationships with male artists, sometimes also her mentors, before discovering a love of women. Her life could almost be split in two on this point – her early years were spent courting men, living with men and, occasionally, considering settling down and marriage; her later years, particularly after falling desperately in love with her friend Vivica Bandler with whom she worked, and remained friends with, for much of the rest of her life. Her discovery of this love was both risky and marvellous, at the time it was illegal to be homosexual in Finland. Yet Tove was prepared to take risks in love as well as in her art (though less, it appears, in her paintings). Eventually Tove met and fell in love with Tuulikki Pietilä and the two spent the rest of their lives together, working together and living together both in Helsinki and on their private island of Klovharun.
Jansson used her life as the inspiration for her artistic work. This book helps to reveal the cross over between life and art. Far from destroying her work, it gives it a second dimension. Her work was fictional, but built on fact, and has a richness and intelligence which is borne out by the woman’s life. It has given me an even better appreciation of her books, but a better appreciation of the scope of her work in general. Jansson was unafraid to confront the world, she wanted to live and love and look it all straight in the face. In fact these self-portraits show her confrontational approach:
Jansson took everything face on, she was naked and open and direct and all of these qualities shine in her literature. And they shine in her art too. In some ways it made me sad to think that whilst her legacy is revered the world over, and whilst generation after generation of child will discover the wonderful world of the Moomins, she never quite achieved what she wanted to in her art. I expect it made her sad too, yet I think she would take even this material and turn it into something insightful and beautiful.
Tove Jansson Work and Love is a wonderful book, well worth the time to read it. And it is quite beautiful, with many examples of Tove’s life and her art and the sheer volume and scope of her work. And really, it is best to allow the work to speak for itself, so I’ll leave you with these beautiful pictures by and of Jansson and a hearty recommendation to explore this wonderful woman’s life for yourself. She is, and was, and always will be an inspiration.
Tove Jansson Work and Love is published in UK by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Books