Tove Jansson Exhibition: Swimmer and Artist
17th November, 2017
Tove Jansson love of islands, water and swimming infused all her work. Arts Correspondent Anna Morell reviews a current exhibition
Best known for being the creator of the much-loved Moomins, Tove Jansson was a polymathic artist, as brilliant with oils and acrylics as a black pen and a comic strip. A Swedish-speaking Finn, she was raised by a family at home on the shoreline, and her love of islands, water and swimming would infuse her paintings, illustrations, books and daily life for her entire life. An exhibition of her work is currently showing at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 28 January 2018.
The exhibition starts with some of her early work from the 30s and 40s. Paintings, and illustrations for the satirical magazine, Garm. A cover illustration from 1942 shows three mermaids atop a wave, aghast at the naval mine beneath them. Another from 1944 is of a giant swastika splashing into a roiling sea, worried individuals pitched high in rowing boats, overwhelmed by the swell. Blue Hyacinth is a still life, the Breton coastline beyond the big bright bloom.
Water that is the unifying motif across Tove’s work…… If ever there was an artist with saltwater mixed in the blood, it is her.
Tove struggled for many years with her desire to be taken seriously as a painter rather than as an illustrator – a vocation which paid the bills, and allowed her a little more freedom come the 1960s to indulge her passions, chief among them, water. The portraits and still lifes of earlier decades give way to abstracts of rocks, and sea. The second room in the exhibition is awash with seascapes. A gloaming, unsteady sky kisses a darker, brooding sea. The crag of shore meets wave, froth, and maybe sky, as grey colours blue colours black colours white in Weathering. Eight Beaufort is a sharp shock of greys and whites slashed by navys and the odd hopeful streak of aqua. Storm made sea made mountain. A final self-portrait finishes the array, her head, a halo round red-ringed eyes, hair a mousey muss against, again, a calm sea blue. The power and effect of the sea on a soul immersed in it.
The opening work is a picture: indeterminate creatures, white, sleeping, snuggled in piles, alone, nestled in black open shapes squashed between tree roots. It is called In The Roots. But there is little that feels earthbound about it. Each black shape, a womb. Each creature floating in an amniotic sack, as rivulets of blue and red trickle down, beneath the tree. Even on land, there is a calling of her pens and brushes to water. Even at the beginning, or in sleeping stasis, it is there, gently lapping on the edges of our perception of Tove. If ever there was an artist with saltwater mixed in the blood, it is her.
There are Moomins, of course. Illustrations from books: Moominpappa at Sea, The Great Flood, Finn Family Moomintroll – every book spent under sail, in rivers, on seas, summers spent on beaches, in boats, skipping to the end of piers, in water, on water, underwater. It is impossible to imagine the Moomins in a landlocked landscape. Even the trappings of cities and towns are wrenched from their traditional cultural moorings and freed up by a dunking by Tove in the sea – think of the theatre floating by the Moomin family (who are themselves adrift from their home thanks to a volcano-induced flood) in Moominsummer Madness. A huge, landlubbing building made aquatic, with all the freedom of movement, ideas and abstraction that that may bring.
It is impossible to imagine the Moomins in a landlocked landscape….. every book spent under sail, in rivers, on seas, summers spent on beaches, in boats, skipping to the end of piers, in water, on water, underwater.
And there are illustrations for other classic books. The Hobbit: mountains mirrored in calm, glacial seas. Alice in Wonderland: Alice starting on her riverbank, falling down a well, head – just – above water as she swims in a pool of her own tears. The Hunting of the Snark, the cover of which is drenched in blues.
It is water that is the unifying motif across Tove’s work. Water, pouring across her canvasses, out of her pens, through her children’s tales, and adult stories (The Summer Book is a beautiful exploration of an island shared by a little girl and her grandmother – the sea and island providing a safety from the emotional storm of maternal loss). Water, providing the way to islands. Water proving to be enough in itself.
On the audio guide handset there is a picture of Tove as a young woman, splashing in the surf. As an older woman, she lived with her girlfriend on an island every summer, where she would swim, often, clad in a floral crown. They built their house themselves, a living testament to her motto, which she would print up on bookplates: Labora Et Amare – work and love. Pleasingly, just one letter skip away from Labora Et A Mare – work, from the sea.
Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 28 January 2018. See more.
Anna Morell, October 2017