2014 is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth, and Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum is celebrating her art and life with an exhibition that runs until this September, when her drawings and paintings will be on exhibit in Japan. A biography of Jansson by Boel Westin in English appeared in January and the New York Review Books will release an anthology of her writings in October 2014, which will coincide with the release of an animated feature film Moomins on the Riviera in her native Finland.
(Image from Wikipedia)
Although born in Helsinki on 9 August 1914, Tove Jansson belonged to the minority Swedish-speaking population of Finland and therefore wrote in Swedish. Born into an upper-class family, young Tove was well educated — she studied art in Helsinki, Stockholm, Paris, and Rome — before World War II altered her life and, probably, her psyche. Finland faced direct Soviet aggression in The Winter War of 1939-1940 when temperatures dropped to negative double digits, in what was truly a heroic David and Goliath fight. After two massive invasions, Finland ceded land to the Russians. The loss of the lands in Karelia and the subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Finns haunted the people of Finland. With Allied support nominal and lacking, the Finns allowed the passage of Hitler’s troops to engage the Soviets in Operation Barbarossa. While Finnish President Risto Ryti declared war on Russia he did not formally ally his nation with Hitler. The Finns, who did not accept Nazi ideology or anti-Semitism, would call the remainder of the conflict the Continuation War. The psychological anxiety should not be underestimated.
Tove Jansson, a painter of landscapes and still life, drew humorous and endearing magical creatures in a fictitious hardy Finnish landscape of lakes, rocks, sea, and valleys. As the brutal and nerve-wracking war boomed in the background, with Tove’s brothers in the army, she drew her Moomins. In her first two Moomin books, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) and Comet in Moominland shortly afterwards, catastrophe lingers overhead, as her displaced creations try to find stability and relish the pleasures of a simple life. Finn Family Moomintroll, translated into English in 1951, would catapult her career into the international spotlight, leading to an offer to provide a Moomin comic strip to a British newspaper, which in turn led to syndication and millions of Moomin fans worldwide.
The hippo-like Moomin is to Finland what Harry Potter is to fans today. Moominmania, however, never took hold in the United States. Established and fortified by her Moomin success, Tove Jansson would spend the rest of her life drawing, painting, and creating sculptures in her studio on a small island in the Finnish archipelago of the Åland islands. Tove created more picture books, wrote some adult fiction, and produced public works throughout Finland. She illustrated all her own books, Swedish translations of The Hobbit and other titles. Her Moomins would inspire films, operas, and plays. Characters like Moominmamma and Moominpappa, Sniff, Snufkin, and the Snork Maiden became household names, a vivid part of childhood memories for generations of British and Scandinavian children.
In 1956, she met her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä, herself an artist and a Finnish-American. They would collaborate on artistic projects. Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971; it was decriminalized in 1999, so Tove either lived in the closet, or saw no need to make a public statement. She lived her life with a reverence for the landscape and with love for her family and friends. Jansson would write Tuulikki into the Moomin family as the character Too-ticky. JoSelle Vanderhooft makes an argument that Tove’s sexuality influenced her Moomin oeuvre in that there are no gender expectations or societal structures in the Moomin world, only openness and interpersonal harmony.
Tove Jansson died in 2001 at the age of 86. Finland considers her a national treasure. Tuulikki Pietilä died eight years later.