Europe was on the brink of World War II when Tove Jansson, the Scandinavian writer and artist, sat down to sketch her first “Moomin” story, about a snout-nosed troll living in a magical land threatened by a rising flood.
The half-written draft was forgotten until after the war, when it was published in 1945 as “The Little Trolls and the Great Flood,” the first in a series of nine Moomin books, which became classics of Finnish literature.
The Moomin characters — adorable Little My, cheeky Snork Maiden and moody Snufkin — gained international fame in 1954, when Jansson made them the protagonists of a comic strip for The Evening News, a newspaper in London. In the 1990s, the Moomins enjoyed a second wave of popularity when a Japanese and Dutch collaboration created an animated Moomin television program and a Moomin feature film.
Today, the Moomins are probably Finland’s most beloved cultural export, and Jansson’s books, written in Swedish, have been translated into more than 50 languages.
But the woman behind the series, a Finnish-Swedish lesbian artist and ardent pacifist, who lived with her partner for half the year on an island, is far less well known.
A new exhibition, “Houses of Tove Jansson,” which opened in Paris at Espace Mont-Louis on Sept. 29, aims to bring more attention to her entire oeuvre, and how it was shaped by her utopian vision.
In addition to Moomin illustrations and cartoons, the show includes Jansson’s paintings and sketches, as well as designs for costumes and sets — much of it whimsical expressions of a wish for peace, tolerance and harmony.
The show also shares biographical information about her youth, her familial relationships — including with her life partner, Tuulikki Pietila — and the places where she created her art.
“We felt that there is so much more to be said about her work,” said Tuukka Laurila, a member of the Parisian art collective the Community, which curated the exhibit in collaboration with the artist’s estate to bring “a new perspective to her work and to explore her work in today’s context,” he added.
By understanding the biographical elements of Jansson’s life, Laurila said, “you realize that many of the characters in the Moomin books were inspired by the people around her, and by her life. Once you know which character represents who, it gives you a reading of Tove’s life.”
Thingumy and Bob, two inseparable little creatures in dresses who speak a secret language, represent Tove and her first love, Vivica Bandler, for example. The optimistic, problem-solving Too-Ticky was directly inspired by Pietilä, Jansson’s long-term partner, Laurila said. Such same-sex relationships were criminalized in Finland until the 1970s, but they had a place in the Moomins’ world.
In the books, there is also a focus on living in nature, developing friendships with unusual creatures, learning from challenges and finding ways to help one another.
Boel Westin, a professor of children’s literature at Stockholm University who wrote a biography of Jansson, said that the artist used her work to express her ideas around pacifism.
“During the war, she wrote in her diary that she wanted to construct a happy society and another world,” Westin said. “Perhaps you can see the Moomin world as a some kind of realization, or fictionalization, of that dream.”
Jansson, who died in 2001, was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1914. Her Swedish mother, the illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, and her Finnish-Swedish father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson, met in Paris while they were studying art.
Tove started drawing as soon as she could hold a pen and went on to study art in Stockholm and Paris. At 15 she created her first illustration for the Swedish-language political satire magazine, Garm, which openly criticized the rising fascist and communist movements of the time.
She worked with the magazine until 1953, producing around 100 cover illustrations, including caricatures of Hitler and Joseph Stalin. “It was definitely risky,” said Sini Rinne-Kanto, another co-curator of the exhibition, because for much of World War II, Finland was aligned with the German Reich. Some of Jansson’s Garm illustrations were censored, Rinne-Kanto added.
From 1944, Jansson lived half the year in an atelier in Helsinki, and once spring came, she would spend the rest of the year with her life partner, Pietila, living on a tiny island, called Klovharun, on the Finnish archipelago. The island had only one house — theirs — which had no electricity or running water; they brought all their supplies by boat.
“The little house on their island was just one room,” said Sophia Jansson, Tove’s niece, who grew up visiting the island. “They also had a tent next to the house, and they slept in that most often, because they loved the idea of hearing the wind and the sea.”
There was another reason for living on an island: In Finland, the couple could have faced arrest or legal penalties for being in a same-sex relationship, but on Klovharun they could live together openly. They spent time there for 30 years, until they grew old and Jansson became afraid of the sea.
But they were not completely isolated, Sophia said. The couple regularly welcomed family and friends, in much the same way Jansson’s Moomin characters extend hospitality to both blood relatives and strangers.
“When guests would visit, the guests would sleep in the house, and Tove and Tuulikki would sleep in the tent,” Sophia said. “In the Moomin world, the door is alway open.”
This idea of creating a safe home was central to Jansson’s writing, Westin said. In the books, “home is a place where you can be secure, where you can have fun,” she said, “but at the same time, home is sometimes threatened by catastrophe, so you have to fight to keep it.”
The situations of the Moomin characters reflected Jansson’s reality, her niece said. That was true from the first book, in which Moomintroll and his mother go in search of Moominpapa, who is lost.
“Without at all exaggerating, everybody that she knew had lost somebody,” Sophia said. “Lots of men died at the front, so there were lots of fathers missing; everyone was on the move, and the refugee theme was very prevalent.”
Rinne-Kanto said that many of the themes of Jansson’s work — especially natural disaster, climate catastrophe and the plight of refugees — continued to resonate with contemporary readers.
“She’s describing what we’re currently going through,” Rinne-Kanto said, “but it’s amazing to think that she was writing these 80 years ago.”