One of Tove Jansson’s earliest self portraits shows her side profile as a 16-year-old: a thick, jaunty bob of blonde hair on her head and a precocious adolescent grin on her face. A confident young woman on the cusp of being an accomplished draftsman and artist. In a self portrait created a decade later we see a much more brooding Tove: sucking a cigarette through her fingers, European style, with a somewhat bored expression on her face. 17 years after that we see a tired Tove, drawn in cartoonish line, completely surrounded and blocked in by Moomins. The creatures are almost overpowering her; clinging to her legs while she stands like a silent, weary mother behind them as they take centre stage.
Sometimes looking at self portraits by artists can feel overly voyeuristic, and Tove gave us a lot of opportunities to peer through the window of her soul. As a draftsman she started early and ended late; born in 1914 on the cusp of the First World War to a sculptor father and graphic artist mother, Tove was constantly drawing when she was very little and didn’t stop until her death at 87-years-old in 2001. By then, Tove had become one of the most well-known and beloved children’s authors and graphic artists in the world because of her creation of the universally appealing Moomins. They probably don’t need too much explaining, but essentially they are a family of cute, round, adventurous white trolls who value friendship, equality, joy, freedom and respect. For children and adults, the Moomins are a loving family of cuddly animals and friends in a beautiful fantasy world. They represent feelings of childhood freedom, while knowingly attacking feelings of fear or sadness, while also being aesthetically very difficult not to like.
Seeing the joy and sweetness flowing through every Moomin story, it would be easy to think of their creator Tove as someone for whom life was pretty great. The old photographs, mostly taken by her good friend C-G Hagström, portray Tove as a smiling, cheeky imp, swimming in the waters of the Gulf of Finland with flowers in her hair and a laissez faire attitude to wearing clothes. Or to think of her in her famous, cluttered studio full of characters and sculptures and funny drawings, awaiting the reams of people who would turn up there for her famously raucous parties. The way she bravely defied the laws against same-sex relationships, spending the majority of her life with Tuulikki Pietilä and relocating to the tiny, rocky, remote island of Klovharun seem inspiring, challeging, they can make us feel envious of her lifestyle. Tove did the unthinkable and made a good living out of being a graphic artist in a time when women were rarely taken seriously for their creative output, or not encouraged to have an output at all.
The time in which Tove spent her life was crucial to her output. Her infant years were spent in the shadow of The First World War, and she published her first Moomin book at the end of World War Two. A year later, Comet in Moominland is released in which the Moomins are living in the shadow of a fiery comet, which represents fear. Tove’s life was spent fighting for her own artistic and sexual rights, in a backdrop of some of the worst bloodshed and pain in the history of the world. Perhaps drawing The Moomins was Tove’s way of escaping the suffering, or maybe she was putting out goodness and love into the world in a bid to battle it.
When you look back at some of the treasured creatives who have made their mark on the world, it has often been the most tortured souls that have presented us with the most remarkable offerings. Just as the pop songs that sound cheerful but actually contain desperately sad lyrics seem to be the ones that we find catchiest, or that funny painful feeling you can have when watching Buster Keaton hurt himself to make us laugh, the reason we adore the output of Tove is the underlying fear and darkness permeating her otherwise cheerful, fantastical work.
Because alongside having to live through two wars, Tove was fighting her own battle with herself at her constant frustration at not having achieved the status of being a fine art painter, and locked into the world of having spawned such a phenomenal worldwide success as The Moomins. In 1957 when she made the glum self portrait where the Moomins are surrounding her like children, she wrote “I’ve poured out my feelings into Moomintroll, but he’s changing. I no longer feel safe in my secret cave – it’s trapping me inside.”
Later in Tove’s life, everything settled. The success of The Moomins continued to grow into TV shows, shops, cafes, merchandise, toys and soon even theme parks. Tove chose to take herself away to the island, be the person she wanted to be and put her past behind her. The world was at peace and so was she.