An exhibition about the Moomins opens with a painting of a naked lady, and she’s the real topic of the exhibition, not the cute Finnish cartoons.
Tove Jansson was born in 1914 in Helsinki to artist parents, and grew up in an ambitious artistic family, living and breathing art. It’s not a surprise that she took to painting then, and right in the middle of the WW2 bombing of Helsinki in 1944, Jansson managed to get an attic studio in the centre of the wartorn city.
Many of her early paid commissions were covers for a local magazine, with strikingly anti-Nazi propaganda on them. Dangerous at the time, for had the Nazi’s won the war, their retribution would have been terminal.
It was also here though that she created the Moomins, while surrounded by war and death.
The early Moomin books were modestly successful, but not outstandingly so. A commission from the Finnish socialist newspaper Ny Tid lead to the first of the long running cartoon strips.
However, it was London that would transform her cartoons and give them international fame, when The Evening News (now the Evening Standard) printed them from 1954-1975.
At the height of their fame, some 20 million newspaper readers would have seen her darkly satirical cartoon strips in over 40 countries.
That success gave her the financial freedom to pursue what she really wanted to do – to paint. Here was an artist trapped in a life many of us lead, a day of less interesting work to pay the bills, so that we have the freedom to indulge in our hobbies when we can.
In fact, from 1960 onwards, most of the Moomins weren’t drawn by Tove anymore. Roughly two-thirds of the Moomins output was drawn instead by her brother, Lars, who also founded the company that to this day handles the commercial exploitation of the Moomin brand.
So the first half of the exhibition is about the artist, not the illustrator.
Unfortunately, she is arguably not as great a painter as she was a story teller and illustrator.
Her early works were criticized for being overly graphic and lacking expression, while later works were simpler still lifes and abstracts, but at a time when such styles were dropping out of fashion. She finally stopped painting in the 1970s, and stuck to writing afterwards.
The exhibition, while widely advertised with the images of the familiar Moomins is actually more about an artist striving for acclaim as a painter while everyone else wanted to talk about her drawings.
If you come her expecting a big, all things Moomin themed exhibition, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you want to see more of the artist, and the early illustrations, not just the Moomins, but The Hobbit and many other works, then it’s informative.