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Exhibition of Tove Jansson in Dulwich Picture Gallery

December 20, 2017

 

With excellent timing of the opening of the exhibition in 25 October 2017 (the day when 100 years ago the October Revolution in Russia started with Finland gaining independence soon afterwards, on December 6). It was the coincidence to visit the exhibition just about on this date – on the weekend of 9-10th December 2017. But it is not only about Finland – the exhibition traces the artistic career of Tove Jansson – a woman who is known to the world as a creator or Moominworld. Whether you are from the UK or Russia, or from any other country in Europe (and probably the world, too) you are sure to have read this book in your childhood – and here Jansson could be compared to another Scandinavian woman – Astrid Lindgren. Interestingly enough, Jansson, grew up in a Swedish-speaking family, so all her famous novels of Moomin cycle, as well as he other writings are in Swedish – similarly to Lindgren. 

The exhibition traces the works of Jansson chronologically, and provides an interesting commentary to about 20 exhibits, which also helps the visitor to understand some phrases in Swedish in the drawings. The whole experience of visiting this show is about picking and choosing your favourites among Jansson’s work, and discovering her way as a painter – and here there are not only her works from Moomintroll canon, although she seems to have concentrated on them after they became popular. We start with her landscapes which have a special atmposphere of winter mysticism and then continue with the images for a political satire magazine Gram to which she contributed over 500 caricatures and 100 cover images. They feature Hitler and Stalin, the most interesting being of Hitler as a child wanting for more cake in the form of the countries of the world. The same room has her auto-portraits and the paintings of her family circle. Tove’s brother Lars was to become her partner in the Moomintroll endeavour at the late stage of her life. The room 2 is called ‘Passion for Painting’ and traces more of Jansson’s landscapes – she seems to have been fascinated by unpredictability of the the sea, with its natural force and malleability reflecting Jansson’s connection with mysterious character of the world around her. It also has an interesting example of Jansson’s later work – her last ever painting was a self-portrait (1975). Here she is somebody one could see in a dream or in an inner vision of oneself, and this painting also has a tinge of surrealism about it. 

The Room 3 features Jansson’s illustrations of other famous books for adults and children. It is interesting that Jansson’s choices were always with the works that have the same quality as her own work would later have – the surreality and magic, the mix of a fairytale world with serious philosophical problems. Here we see illustrations for Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Hunting of Snark’, as well as for Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ – one could say that Jansson’s characteristic world of drawing is already developing into what we would later know as her signature Moomin images. It seems that her Moominland came out as an escape from the terrors of the real world and also as a way of connection with her mysticism with regards to nature that was developing among beautiful Finnish landscapes. While Moomin figures have developed in Jansson’s mind, the Room 4 presents the sketches and ink (or pen) drawing of Moominworld as we know them from books. And there is actually a chance to dip into some of the books themselves, as a special room (though sadly, not very well heated – but we could imagine we just have woken into winter, as Moomintroll once did) is furnished with benches, comfortable little rugs and books of Tove Jansson in different languages cosily stocked up in baskets. The Room 4, in my view, is the pinnacle of the exhibition, as it shows drawings from every Jansson’s book in the Moomin cycle – ‘Comet in Moominland’, ‘The Moomins and the Great Flood’, ‘Moominland Midwinter’, ‘The Exploits of Moominpappa’, ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’, ‘Moominsummer Madness, ‘Moominpappa at Sea’, ‘Moominvalley in November’. I especially liked that recurring feeling of a being lost in the wilderness of nature – be it on a lonely island (‘Moominpappa at Sea’), or during harsh winter (‘Moominland MidWinter’), or before the coming of unknown comet. It creates the unforgettable feeling of being at a rendez-vous with uknown forces of this world mastered into a fairytale and thus diving into the deepest recesses of our cognition and memory, finding their place there in the guize of wonderful Moomin fegures (also displayed at the exhibition as figurines made in Finland in 1950s and 1960s). This Jansson’s idea of a dangerous world continues in her Moomin comic strips which appeared in The Evening News and Finnish ‘Ny Tid’ (‘New Time’). Thus, one of them features Moominfamily successfully escaping from the end of the world and again has this ever-present contrast of everyday childhood and escapist activities (playing chess or collecting stamps) with the global catastrophe looming behind. The latter activities of Jansson and her brother Lars who helped create comic strips seem a bit to eclectic in their ambition to commercialie Moomintroll as a trademark. Here we see posters of a Moominopera and a play ‘Mumintroll i kulisserna’, and there is a feeling that Moomin figure could appear in every form of human art. This could be true, but real connoisseurs and lovers of Jansson’s books might want to return to Room 4 and contemplate her world of drawings, trying once again to get into this wonderful dreamlike world. 

 

 

 

 

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