Moominous Monday

Another day, another brunch 🙂 And today the talk is about all things Moomin.

Moomins love Monday! They also love pancakes and they can eat a lot of them…. So we have plenty!

The Moomins are a friendly species invented by Tove Jansson, one of the most famous cartoonists in the world during the 1950s and 60s.

Jansson had the status of a beloved cultural icon — adored by children, celebrated by adults. Before her death, in 2001, at the age of eighty-six, Jansson produced paintings, novels, children’s books, magazine covers, political cartoons, greeting cards, librettos, and much more. But most of Jansson’s fans arrived by way of the Moomins.

Tove Jansson drew this picture of herself surrounded by various Moomin characters, including Snufkin (at right, with hat), who is said to have been inspired by Jansson’s friend Atos Wirtanen.

Born in Helsinki in 1914, the eldest of three children in a Swedish-speaking family (a minority in Finland), Tove Jansson grew up in an environment where art, work and life were inseparable. Her father was Finnish sculptor Viktor Jansson and her mother was Swedish artist Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, known as Ham. By the age of 14 her work was already appearing in print and she soon followed her mother to the satirical magazine Garm. At art school, where her early work had a mystical, fairytale quality to it, she was considered a bright and promising student.

At twenty-three, Jansson left home to study painting in Paris, where she soon enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts. Her yearning, detailed letters to her family express her disappointment with the school and its irrelevant assignments: “This time for instance it’s ‘Moses strikes the rock’ and ‘People waiting for a bus.’ We have four days to get it done.” After two weeks, she quit the school, complaining to her mother that “Beaux Arts was a place for having fun or hoping for the Prix de Rome, and possibly one gleaned some superficial technique to use in disguising one’s mediocre talents.” Jansson transferred to a smaller atelier, run by a more radical Swiss artist who, learning of her defection, “went quite pale at the thought of the terrible danger I’d escaped from.”

After leaving school, with the Second World War unfolding, she struggled to complete what she hoped would be a masterwork: a psychologically tense, large-scale oil portrait of her family. But the painting was exhibited, in a group show, to disappointing reviews. Months later, Jansson wrote unhappily about her work in a journal, “Too many canvases are ‘able,’ or forced, or ‘artificial.’ My greatest asset should be painting, but either it is failing or I am failing.”

Tove Jansson, Family (1942)

The war years were traumatic for Jansson but also provided a great stimulus to create. She had been mocking Hitler in the pages of Garm since as early 1935 but the war heightened her satirical bite. Her cartoons reveal a pathetic and ridiculous clown behind the monster who threatened Europe. As Finland had entered into an alliance with Germany in 1940, her work caused consternation among the authorities and the magazine came perilously close to being charged with insulting the head of a friendly state. Her courage in challenging public opinion cannot be underestimated. If the war had ended differently the consequences for her would have been fatal.

It was the horrors of that time that also served as inspiration for the first Moomin books. During these turbulent creative years Jansson invented the Moomins, a close-knit family made up of the boyish Moomintroll, the obliging and practical Moominmamma, the adventure-seeking Moominpappa, and Moomintroll’s pretty and vain girlfriend, Snork Maiden, along with an auxiliary cast of non-Moomin friends. They live together in peaceful, verdant Moominvalley, but frequently venture beyond its borders. Jansson wrote to a friend that the characters had taken shape “when I was feeling depressed and scared of the bombing and wanted to get away from my gloomy thoughts to something else entirely… I crept into an unbelievable world where everything was natural and benign — and possible.”

Wise wanderers … a drawing by Tove Jansson. Photograph: © Moomin Characters ™

Initially she seemed to doubt the worth of her escapist pleasure, and she put the drawings aside for years. In 1945, at a friend’s urging, she finally published the stories and drawings as a book, The Moomins and the Great Flood. Illustrated with line drawings and sepia paintings, the story is fascinating for how un-escapist it seems with its images of refugees searching for their relatives – Moomintroll and his mother wander through a perilous landscape, hungry and cold, searching for Moominpappa. Comet in Moominland, completed just after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sees the residents of Moominvalley facing possible annihilation from a comet hurtling towards earth. Her characters are granted happy endings but all the same, they’re quite exceptional for children’s books at that time. Still, if her stories contain some of the harshness of life, they always end happily, with a joyous return to Moominvalley, family and friends all safe.

The Moomins were an immediate hit. One critic praised Jansson as “an artist with two native languages” — words and images. Finn Family Moomintroll, the third book and still the most popular, published in 1948, is a much brighter affair. It is here that we encounter the inseparable Thingumy and Bob, carrying around a suitcase containing a secret ruby, to them “the most beautiful thing in the world”, believed to represent Jansson and her lover at the time, theatre director Vivica Bandler.

Moomintroll with Thingumy and Bob

A decade after The Great Flood, by which point three more Moomin books had appeared, she was asked by the London Evening News to turn the comic into a daily strip. With worldwide distribution of the Evening News, Moominmania really began to take off in the 1950s. The popularity of the comic strips was to prove a double-edged sword, however. They provided a much needed regular income, but the demands of producing a weekly strip meant that Jansson’s time for painting was severely restricted. It was a situation that could not continue and at the end of the 1950s Jansson said goodbye to the comic strips.

Tove Jansson, Comic strip Moomin on the Riviera, 1955. British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent.

In 1959 Jansson, painted another self-portrait. She called it Beginner. Her expression is calm and determined, her gaze directed at the easel. It is signed Jansson in a bid to separate her from the Tove of Moomin fame.

Tove Jansson, ‘Nybörjare’, ‘The Beginner’, 1959

Moominpappa at Sea (1965) is probably the greatest book written about depression that there has been. Moominpappa has a midlife crisis and decides to relocate the family to a remote lighthouse. The writing is frustrating, because he keeps making the same mistakes, and it describes a kind of cycle of depression that he can’t get out of it. It’s a profound work and also very funny. It’s like a terrible holiday where it rains all the time: you are trying to be cheerful but it’s dreadful. Few artists do rain like Jansson – she was influenced by Van Gogh – she created a wonderful drawing of the family picnicking on a tiny beach.

Moominpappa at Sea illustration

Moominvalley in November (1970), the final novel, is the saddest of them all, written just after the death of Jansson’s mother.

It is this strangely comforting combination of catastrophe and everyday cosiness that makes the Moomins so enchanting and enduring. The Moomin books are survival stories: no problem is so great it can’t be made better by a cup of coffee and a cuddle. The Moomins go through everything – floods and earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and comets. It all happens, but they face it all with a smile, optimism, openness and hospitality.

Despite the remarkable success of her illustrations and cartoons, Jansson’s passion wasn’t illustration, it was painting. Jansson often saw her illustration work as a way to make ends meet in order to experiment in her painting, and it made her sad later on in life that people only saw the Moomins in her. In painting, Jansson was always searching for her own style, responding to many of the major artistic movements of the time. She started out in a mystical vein in the 1930s, inspired by the likes of surrealist painters like Salvador Dali. She transitioned into realism during and just after the war before finally settling into non-figurative experiments in the 1960s, around the same time Abstract Expressionism had become a global phenomenon.

In Helsinki, Jansson retreated to her studio, where she “couldn’t be bothered to sweep up” and a “veil of tobacco smoke” covered the room.

Since her death in 2001, there has been a resurgence of interest in her work, with the Moomins still at the centre with reissues of the Moomin books with their original artwork, but also publication of her lesser-known fiction for adults. In 2014 the centenary of her birth was celebrated with exhibitions and a biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin.

In June 2017, a new Moomin museum opened in Tampere, Finland. Jansson and her life partner and fellow artist, Tuuliki Pietila, came to know and like Tampere when Pietila’s brother was working there as an architect. Before Jansson’s death in 2001 they donated their entire Moomin archive, more than 2,000 drawings and watercolours by Jansson, and scores of Pietila’s magical models, to the city. They are now on display, many for the first time, in the only permanent museum in the world dedicated to the Moomins, created within the Tampere Hall arts complex. According to the curators at Tampere, the treasure of the archive came to their city after it was turned down by the main public art gallery in Helsinki, a humiliating experience for Jansson who yearned to be seen as a serious artist.

The Moomins Museum opened in June 2017 in Tampere, Finland. Photograph: Jari Kuusenaho/Tampere Art Museum

The models include a five-storey house standing three metres tall built in the 1970s with their friend Pentti Eistola, which needed a year’s conservation work on the fragile wooden structure and its thousands of contents. The museum installed a fly-through video to display the obsessive detail of the tiny interiors.

One of the museum’s prize exhibits is this model of a painstakingly-detailed, five-storey Moomins house, built in the 1970s. Photograph: Jari Kuusenaho/Tampere Art Museum

In October 2017, the full range of Jansson’s work was celebrated at south London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery in an exhibition, giving one of the 20th century’s most beloved illustrators her fair due as a painter. On display were 150 works ranging from self portraits to landscapes, her Surrealist paintings from the 1930s to her abstract works from the ’60s, along with various other drawings and early sketches of the Moomin characters.

In November last year, the animated series Moominvalley was recommissioned for a third season. We have yet to see the first one! Moominvalley was released in 2019 with an all-star cast including Taron Egerton (Moomintroll), Rosamund Pike (Moominmamma), Matt Berry (Moominpappa) and Kate Winslet (Mrs Fillyjonk), and Oscar-winning director Steve Box.

This is the first official addition to the Moomin franchise to be financed by the fans. Gutsy Animations started a crowdfunding campaign in April 2017 to fund the series, which surpassed its $200,000 goal to get the project off the ground. And launch the third Moominmania wave.

There have been several animated Moomin series over the years, some of them better received than others. Moominvalley is the first animated series released since the anime series of the early 90s, which was so popular that it was broadcast in 124 territories and launched the second Moominmania wave.

All the episodes of the Adventures from Moominvalley are available on YouTube on the Moomin channel.

The biopic Tove premiered in Finland in October 2020, and will hopefully make it out into the rest of the world sometime this year. It is Finland’s official entry to the Academy Awards this year.

Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti) works on a painting. This scene was filmed in Jansson’s actual studio, which still stands much as she left it, in central Helsinki.

Little Puffles and Honey had pancakes at the Mumin Kaffe in Helsinki in 2017.

Mumin Kaffe
Liisankatu 21, Helsinki

It’s a bit far to get pancakes from there again, so little bears made their own 🙂 Yummy!

Categories: Just Having Fun

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