Tove Jansson, Dulwich Picture Gallery, till 28 January 2018
For anyone wanting to add a touch of Scandi stardust to their Christmas festivities, the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is a must.
There are Moomins aplenty, of course, but so much more. The range of media, subject matter, and styles is staggering, for the accomplished illustrator was also a portraitist, political cartoonist and painter of powerful, semi-abstract landscapes (not to mention a brilliant writer).
The earliest paintings shown here are mystical landscapes: Midwinter Wolves is all snapping jaws and fiery eyes, while in Encounter man on charger and maiden come face to face in a forest clearing.
In complete contrast to these are the cover illustrations she did for the political magazine Garm during the 1930s and 40s. One shows Hitler as an overgrown baby throwing a tantrum, while obsequious courtiers try to placate him by offering him countries on a plate. On a Christmas wartime edition, Father Christmas, angels and reindeer peer anxiously over the edge of a cloud, their rope ladder dangling limply into the void – they are unable to fulfil their seasonal mission because of the carnage raging below.
Self-portraits punctuate her output, all of them presenting her as a confident, self-aware woman, often with a feline, silky charm. Her last portrait (in fact, her last painting before devoting herself entirely to illustration) stands out from the series both in being much freer in style, and in its presentation of age: red-rimmed eyes, limp grey hair – but there is honesty, strength and defiance in this uncompromising image.
For my money, though, it is her illustrations that really set her apart. The exhibition not only features plenty of Moomin art (both the books and the satirical strip cartoon that appeared in the Evening News), but also her illustrations for the Swedish editions of The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. Though the characters and creatures are different, meticulous and well-observed drawing runs through all these works. From the pages full of small sketches, we can see the efforts she went to to get an arm gesture just right, or to perfect the expression and shape of an exotic animal.
Her pen and ink drawings are executed with the finest of lines and cross-hatchings, and it’s hard to accept that these are indeed drawings and not etchings. The light effects have to be seen to be believed: using only the contrast between the black line or shape and the paper she creates explosions, fireworks, whirlpools, snowscapes, sea spray – and the long Nordic nights.
The inhabitants of Moominland are a diverse bunch, and the message her illustrations often carry is that no matter how gigantic/tiny/hairy/amorphous a creature may be, they have something to offer and must be nurtured. Moominmamma, based on Jansson’s own mother, is the source of much warmth and practical support. Clad in her apron and armed with a positively Thatcheresque handbag, she is equal to any situation in any environment.
What I think I’m trying to say is, come home to Moominland for Christmas.