Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins
By Elodie Barnes | On February 27, 2023 | Updated March 21, 2023 | Comments (2)
Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914 – June 27, 2001) was a Swedish-speaking Finnish author, illustrator, and painter, active as a writer and artist for more than seventy years.
Her most famous creations, The Moomins, first appeared in 1945. The adventures and philosophical musings of Moomintroll and his family are still popular today.
She also produced paintings, short stories, novels, other children’s books, political cartoons, magazine covers, theatre sets, public murals, and much more.
Early years; a creative family
Tove Marika Jansson was born Helsinki, into an artistic family. Her father, Viktor Jansson (known in the family as Faffan), was a sculptor from Helsinki; her mother, Signe Hammarsten (known as Ham), was an illustrator from Stockholm. Both had broken free of their more conventional backgrounds in order to devote their lives to art.
Signe was a clergyman’s daughter, while Viktor was the son of a haberdashery business owner. They passed this devotion first to Tove and later to her two brothers, Per Olav (born in 1920, who became a photographer) and Lars (born in 1926, who became a painter and sculptor).
From the start, Tove was drawn, painted, sculpted, and photographed. The day after she was born, her mother began creating a book of “our Sunday child.” She drew Tove for the first time, and wrote “She was born on Sunday 9th August at five minutes to twelve. It’s nice she was a girl. But she was so ugly, awful! Like a little wrinkled old woman…”
The family lived and worked on Lotsgaten Street in Helsinki, with a country summer house on Blidö island in the Pellinge archipelago, and maintained no distinction between work and family life. The home and studio were one, and Tove spent her early years crawling, toddling, and sleeping among illustrations, drawings, sculptures, and all the various art materials that were left lying around.
When Viktor left home to fight in the Finnish Civil War on the White (anti-Bolshevik) side, his letters home are full of his artistic dreams and ambitions for his daughter: “Maybe we’ll have a great artist in Tove one day. A really great one!”
Money was often tight. Signe was the main breadwinner of the family, with a steady job at the Bank of Finland as well as regular illustration commissions. Viktor’s income was more precarious, being almost totally reliant on artists’ grants.
Tove was always close to her mother, and the pressure that their finances placed on Signe was apparent to her from an early age. She often expressed the desire to be able to help her mother, and art was the natural way for her to do that.
From the age of seven she was writing, illustrating, and binding her own stories to make little books, which she would then give away or sell in the playground at school, and her first “proper” story was accepted for publication when she was just fourteen, in 1928.
That same year, she contributed fairytale illustrations to Julen (the Christmas publication of the Finland-Swedish Office-worker’s Association), and was able to take over an illustration commission for her mother when Signe had to return to Stockholm to care for her sick mother.
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Art school and travel
In autumn 1930 Tove attended the Stockholm Technical School, and lived with her maternal uncle Einar in Stockholm. She did well, winning prizes and scholarships, and specialized in illustration and design for advertising.
Throughout her time there, she was torn between her longing to complete her education and even go on to university, and her desire to return home and help her mother financially. During her first year in Stockholm, she wrote that she had “to become an artist for the sake of the family.”
But when it came to her desire to go on to the College of Industrial Art, she recognized that, “Mamma hopes I won’t go on. And of course I want to go home and help Mamma. But I also want to go on to higher…”
Her sense of responsibility and duty, and her love for her family, meant that she chose to return home after Technical School. In May 1933, just before her graduation, she wrote to Signe:
“I am a part of you, more than the boys are — it makes no difference how I am, you sadness is mine — how can I care a damn for the whole of Sweden when you aren’t here? I’m coming home, soon … It may be that I’ll be better able to understand you now, and to help you and understand how lucky I am to have you.”
Back in Helsinki, she started as a student at the Drawing Class at the Finnish Society of Art, known as the Ateneum. She lived with her family, now in the newly established Lallukka Artist’s Home in the Töölö district of Helsinki, but longed for a studio and space of her own.
She traveled extensively in the 1930s, enjoying the independence it gave her and the opportunities to further her studies. In 1934 she travelled through Germany, noting the hostility of Nuremberg and the widespread nationalism.
Munich in particular horrified her, and she captured some of her feelings in a short story titled Brevet (“The Letter”), in which the desperately poor character Mr Vöpel has sunk under a “grey cloak of meaninglessness,” and spends his time, jealous and bitter, at the train station watching those who are fortunate enough to travel elsewhere.
In the spring of 1938 she traveled to Paris, settling at the Hôtel des Terrasses on Boulevard St. Jacques in Montparnasse. It was popular with other Scandinavian artists, but Tove felt as if she was living “in a buzzing wasps’ nest,” and moved from there to a hotel on the rue Monsieur Le Prince.
She tried several art schools: the École des Beaux-Arts on the Left Bank, a place she disliked for its snobbery and bullying and the irrelevance of the assignments (she left after two weeks, and wrote 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”); the Academy on the rue de la Grande Chaumière; and finally the Atelier d’Adrien Holy, on the rue Broca.
She settled there for the rest of the spring, and many of her paintings from Holy’s received critical acclaim.
The signature Tove rising to renown
Meanwhile, in Helsinki, the signature Tove was beginning to become well known. She contributed seven oil paintings, three aquarelles, and a charcoal drawing to the Young Artists’ Exhibition of 1939.
She was also busy as an illustrator, contributing to short stories, fairy tales, poetry, reportage, children’s stories, and newspaper columns. She illustrated Swedish translations of classics such as The Hobbit, The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice in Wonderland, and over the next two decades created several public murals from commissions.
The newspaper that she contributed to most frequently was Garm, a satirical left-wing publication founded in 1923 by editor Henry Rein. It folded in 1953 with his death, but for twenty years Tove provided some six hundred illustrations and covers.
Her caricatures, particularly those that clearly conveyed her disdain for the Finnish policy of rapprochement with Germany, caused anger in pro-Fascist circles. She was censored several times, and in 1938 both she and Rein narrowly escaped prosecution. Later, Tove would say, “I enjoyed working for Garm, and what I liked best was being beastly to Hitler and Stalin.”
Personal life, and the impact of war
World War II had a major impact on Tove. Political differences within the family became painfully clear, as Tove’s father held fast to his anti-Bolshevik and pro-German inclinations that stemmed from his experiences in the Finnish Civil War, while Tove in particular was horrified at the Fascists.
Her brother, Per Olav, was fighting on the eastern front, and Signe was frantic with worry. “The days are short and grey,” Tove wrote, “Everyone goes round in their own little space, waiting for peace and delivering monologues on the war.”
In the early 1940s, she tried to depict the strain within the family in art with a large oil painting (“Family 1942”) of her brothers playing chess, her mother and father looking on from opposite sides of the canvas with worried expressions, and Tove herself in the middle, gazing angrily into the distance.
But the painting, when exhibited, received mediocre reviews, like many of her other paintings from this period, and months later Tove wrote unhappily about her work: “My greatest asset should be painting, but either it is failing or I am failing.”
She was torn between illustration, which paid the bills, and painting, which was her passion. It was part of a lifelong sense that her commercial work — packaging designs, fabric prints, commissioned public murals — was belittled, and that only as a painter could she be truly creative.
Tove was always a prolific letter writer, but strains of war, family conflict, and creative depression made this outlet even more important. One of her most regular correspondents was her friend Eva Konikoff, a Russian-Jewish photographer whom she’d met in Helsinki while in her twenties, and who emigrated to the US just before the outbreak of war.
Tove wrote hundreds of letters to Eva, despite knowing that many of them would be censored or simply never arrive, in which she reflected on art, philosophy, and the war, and — when letters arrived from America — was always delighted to receive the small gifts Eva sent. These included fruit, face cream, and art materials.
Her personal life was also unsettled. She had had an affair with the artist Samuel Beprosvanni, known as Sam Vanni, in the 1930s. He was both her mentor and her lover, but by the time the war started this had ended and she was in love with the left-wing artist Tapio Tapiovaara. Marriage was mentioned, but Tove was ambivalent: “When men stop killing, then I’ll bear a child — but I know they never will stop.”
Writing once again to Eva:
“Because when all is said and done I have in me all those inherited female instincts for solace, admiration, submission, self-sacrifice. Either a bad painter or a bad wife. And if I become a “good” wife, then his work will be more important than mine, my intellect be subordinate to his …”
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Desperate for an escape, and longing to simply be left in peace away from the war, Tove turned to writing and drawing. She began to work on the fantasy story of a family living in a valley: Moomintroll, his loving and practical Moominmamma, the adventure-seeking Moominpappa, and Moomintroll’s pretty and vain friend Snork Maiden.
Later, Tove wrote that the characters had come to life “when I was feeling depressed and scared of the bombing and wanted to get away from my gloomy thoughts to something else entirely…”
This first story became The Moomins and the Great Flood, published in 1945 and illustrated with Tove’s own line drawings and sepia prints. The little family would go on to be a huge success both in Finland and abroad, with a total of nine books (translated into more than thirty languages) and a daily comic strip that ran for twenty years, beginning in the London Evening News and spreading to over a hundred newspapers around the world.
Eventually, there was a Swedish television show, an anime series in Japan, and all kinds of merchandise ranging from notebooks to oven gloves.
Tove was both proud and relieved: “Permanent employment — the first time in my life.” And, despite being deluged with correspondence, she diligently replied to every letter.
Awards soon followed, including the Stockholm Award for best children’s book in 1952, the Selma Lagerlöf medal in 1953, and the International Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966.
Going “over to the ghost side”
After the war, Tove was finally able to move into her own studio, a turret on Ullanlinnankatu that was icy cold and bomb-damaged, but at least was her own.
“The first time I came into the new studio there was an alarm and the artillery gave me a salute of welcome. I just stood and looked, and was happy. The wind was coming in through the broken windows and chimneys, and big piles of rubble were lying under the cracks in the walls….I planted my easel in the middle of the floor, I was utterly happy.”
She had ended her relationship with Tapio and was seeing Atos Wirtanen, a liberal politician and philosopher, and felt as if she was entering a new phase of life.
In 1946, Tove met theatre director Vivica Bandler. Although she was married and Tove was still with Atos, the two began an affair. It was a revelation for Tove, who wrote that she was “finally experiencing myself as a woman where love is concerned, it’s bringing me peace and ecstasy for the first time.”
The two remained friends after the affair ended (later collaborating on Moomin-themed plays for children), but Tove was never able to settle back into her relationship with Atos.
Tove wrote to Eva that “the happiest and most genuine course for me would be to go over to the ghost side” — a reference to the secrecy and discretion that same-sex relationships demanded, at a time when they were illegal.
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Tove and her Moomins, 1956
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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The loves of Tove’s life: Tooti and Klovharun
In 1956 Tove met Tuulikki Pieitilä (known as Tooti), a graphic designer and art professor who became Tove’s lifelong partner and most trusted critic. Both valued their independence, with separate apartments in Helsinki joined by an attic corridor, and Tove maintained her studio where a “veil of tobacco smoke” hung over the room, and where she “couldn’t be bothered to sweep up.”
In the summers, they went to the Gulf of Finland just as Tove had done every year as a child, taking refuge in a series of remote, rustic houses.
In 1964 they took the opportunity to build a cabin of their own there, on a bare island of Klovharun on the outer edges of the archipelago. It was “a rock in the middle of nowhere,” according to Tove’s niece Sophia:
“They weren’t very young when they moved out there, they were almost 50. Many people raised their eyebrows to the idea of building a house on this deserted island in the outer archipelago. There was no electricity or running water on the island and it was difficult to get there. Since they were women, people thought they would never make it.”
But Tove had always loved the practicality and the challenge of construction and craftsmanship. The cabin, when it was built, had a single room with windows in all four directions, and Tove describes it in Notes from an Island (a book with notes from Klovharun illustrated with Tooti’s graphics and with covers drawn by Tove’s mother):
“We dreamt of what the cottage would look like. It would have four windows, one in each wall. In the south east we made room for the great storms that rage in across the island, in the east the moon would be able to reflect itself in the lagoon, and in the west there would be a rocky wall with moss and polyps. To the north one had to be able to keep a lookout for anything that might come along, and have time to get used to it.”
In one letter, Tove describes the idyll of time alone on Klovharun with Tooti: waking up at the same time, listening to the radio, letting out the cat, making coffee, reading novels, walking along the beach, collecting firewood. Tove would write, while Tooti drew or filmed with her 8mm camera.
The cabin never had running water or electricity and the food was basic — hard bread, cheese, butter, fish that they caught themselves, all other provisions canned. For several years they would go as soon as the ice broke in April, not returning to Helsinki until the October.
“We rarely clean the house and only have the occasional wash, with much brouhaha and pans of hot water on the ground outside. Then we do our own private thing until dinner, which we eat sometime in the middle of the day, our noses in our books. We get on with our work…And so the days pass in blessed tranquility.”
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Writing for adults
The 1960s was also a time for experiments in creativity. Tove had been feeling increasingly uncertain about her direction as an artist: life had been taken over by the Moomins and her reputation as a children’s author. In 1959, after having made more than ten thousand drawings, she handed control of the Moomins over to her brother Lars.
“I never spare them a thought now it’s over,” she said, “I’ve completely drawn a line under all that. Just as you wouldn’t want to think back on a time you had toothache.”
Instead, she turned to abstract art and to writing for adults. She experimented with different genres, different styles, different formats, all very slowly and mostly for herself. In a 1977 interview she said, “I rewrote a new version; there are four, five, six versions of the same thing…the meaning of words became so important to me.”
She believed that “nothing must be superfluous…one must hold the story enclosed within one’s hand.”
Her first published book for adults was Sculptor’s Daughter (1967). Written ten years after her father’s death, and just before her mother’s passing in 1970, it depicted scenes she remembered from her childhood. It was followed by a short story collection, The Listener. Both received good reviews.
In 1971, after a period spent traveling, she finished what would become possibly her most famous book for adults, a novel called The Summer Book.
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Tove continued to write, producing four more novels: Sun City (1974), The True Deceiver (1982), The Field of Stones (1984), and Fair Play (1989).
There were also three short story collections: Art in Nature (1978), Traveling Light (1987), and Letters from Klara (1991). All are full of the complexities of human relationships, which fascinated Tove, but also with the dry humor that became part of her style.
(Another short story collection, A Winter Book, was compiled and published in 2006, after her death.)
Tove and Tooti continued to live and work between Helsinki and Klovharun until the 1980s. By then, the atmosphere of the island had changed: getting older meant that they could no longer do as much, and the precarity of island life no longer felt exciting but anxious. In addition, they suffered a series of break-ins, and the defense forces had started using the archipelago as a base for shooting exercises.
The isolation, for Tove, was becoming not inspirational but monotonous; she no longer felt as if she was in tune with the landscape that had provided her with so much over the years. “You must beware of desert islands if your work isn’t going as it should,” she wrote. “Because then the horizon can turn into a hoop of iron and the monotony of the days become merely a relentless confirmation of the fact that you can’t get started…”
The decision to leave was a hard one, made over several years, but their final night came on 30 September 1991, when Tove signed a gift deed of the cabin over to the Pellinge District Resident’s Association. In July 1992, she wrote:
“Tooti and I are fine. Being in town in the summer doesn’t feel as strange as we expected, more peaceful at all events. And we don’t have to throw our rubbish into the sea – and we have running water and TV and so on.”
During the 1990s, Tove became seriously ill with both lung and breast cancer. There were exhibitions and a three-day international symposium in Tampere to celebrate her 80th birthday in August 1994, which she was present at throughout, but the strain was enormous and it was her last official appearance. In the summer of 2000 she suffered a massive stroke, and died on 27th June 2001. She is buried with her parents and brother Lars in Sandudd Cemetery in Helsinki.
Tove Jansson’s Legacy
Tove’s friend, the actress Birgitta Ulfsson, said of hers writing, “Complexity — that is Tove’s trademark…[but] her sense of humor is her greatest quality for me … Her humor is immense, it permeates everything.”
Tove’s most famous legacy is, of course, The Moomins. All of the Moomin books are still in print, and there is a Moomin website where you can explore the history of the Moomins, buy Moomin merchandise, and even discover which Moomin character you are.
The Moomin Museum is in Tampere, Finland. It displays much of Tove’s work on the Moomins, and there is also a Moomin theme park (Moomin World) in Naantali. Since 1988, Finland’s Post has also released several postage stamps with Moomin motifs.
Several retrospectives of her art have ben held, and in 2020 a biopic, simply titled Tove, was released. The film was directed by Zaida Bergroth and starred Alma Pöysti, and follows Tove’s life from the end of World War II through to the mid-1950s.
Beyond the Moomins, Tove Jansson is still celebrated all over the world. Her books have been translated into some forty-five languages, and she is the only person, other than former Finnish president Urho Kekkonen, to have featured twice on a commemorative coin minted by the Bank of Finland.
Jansson died from Cancer on June 27, 2001 at the age of 86. She is buried with her parents and younger brother Lars at Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki
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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Tove Jansson
- The Moomins (available separately and in various collected editions)
- The Summer Book
- A Winter Book
- Fair Play
- The True Deceiver
- Traveling Light
- Art in Nature
- The Listener
- Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir
- Notes from an Island
Biographies and Letters
- Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin (2018)
- Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Dr Tuula Karjalainen (2016)
- Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson (2020)
- Official website
- More about Tove on Moomin.com
- Reader discussion of Tove Jansson’s books on Goodreads
- Vintage Wisdom from The Moomins