Finland is celebrating Tove Jansson, creator of its most famous cultural export – the Moomins
Self-portrait: Tove Jansson with her creations. © Moomin Characters™
Moomins, those cheerful, practical, appealingly hippo-like trolls, are Finland’s most famous cultural export. As well as Moomin cuddly toys, the creations of the artist and writer Tove Jansson appear on everything from plates, pens and stationary to watches, bedlinen and even the wings of Finnair planes.
This year is the centenary of Jansson’s birth, and as part of the Tove 100 celebrations (tove100.com) Ateneum, the Finnish national gallery, is hosting a huge show of her illustrations, cartoons and monumental murals.
If you knew Jansson’s work only from those cute toys and notebooks you might assume it to be fluffy and sweet. But the stories that accompany her delightful illustrations are full of existential angst. As the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce said of his childhood discovery of her work, “it was as though Kierkegaard had come round on a play date”.
And yet, as Cottrell-Boyce points out, the stories are also full of kindness. I find the Moomin books enormously comforting not because they are safe or cosy – they’re not – but because they are wise. Whatever terrible and frightening things happen to them, the Moomins face their problems with humour and bravery.
Jansson was interested in pretty much everything, as we’re reminded in a fascinating new authorised biography by Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (Sort Of Books, £25). As well as her paintings, political cartoons, comic strips and children’s books (which include some of the most wonderful, innovative picture books ever produced), Jansson wrote a number of celebrated books for adults, such as The Summer Book , a funny, sad and beautiful novel.
In 1979 she documented her relationship with Tuulikki Pietila in the novel Fair Play , which she described as “rather happy tales of two women who share a life of work, delight and consternation”. Like all of Jansson’s work, it’s humane, witty and slightly wild – just one of the many reasons to celebrate her centenary.
Anna Carey’s latest novel is Rebecca Rocks