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Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Illustration by Lucy Key-Stratton

In the 72 years of their existence, the names Moomintroll, Snorkmaiden and Snufkin have come to overshadow that of their Finnish creator, Tove Jansson. Yet a new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery seeks to redress this, establishing Jansson as an artist outside the fantastical world of Moominvalley. It introduces a true polymath, who worked across painting, theatre, novel-writing and opera, as well as cartoon and illustration, and may start in a surprising place for the hordes of families atthe gallery on a Saturday morning. A number of paintings, conspicuously Moomin-free, take clear influence from Munch, Gauguin, and Matisse, an influence gained during studies in Paris and Sweden, and extensive travels in Europe. The self-portraits and family depictions seen here reveal an artist struggling to find a style, which came so much easier in her illustrations and literature.

It’s not long, however, before the exhibition introduces her Moomin progeny. It’s a delight to see the inprogress illustrations up close – the collage, Tipp-Ex and tracing paper that lead the way to the final image. Painterly versions often sit alongside their graphic counterparts, an expression of her battle between the two forms. The graphic always wins out.

Tove Jansson, Mumintrollet 1

Desperate to be taken seriously as a painter, the exhibition proves, somewhat sadly, the extent to which Jansson failed in this ambition. Her paintings cannot match the brilliance of her illustrations, which convey emotion with a magnificent ease. A melancholy self-portrait from 1975, said to be the last painting she ever made, stands as a sad halfway point in the exhibition. Made the same year that she returned to the Moomin comic strips following a fifteen-year hiatus, it seems a painful coming to terms with her disappointments as an artist, and a putting-down of the paintbrush.

Tive Jansson, Self Portrait, 1975

Yet Jansson’s success cannot be overstated. The Moomin empire has included board games, toys and eerie children’s television programmes. At its peak, the comic strip had over 20 million readers in over 40 countries. The exhibition’s chief triumph is that, perhaps accidentally, it lets these works shake off the second-class status accorded to them by Jansson during her lifetime, and shows indisputably her genius as a graphic artist.

Dulwich Picture Gallery: 25 October - 28 January 2018

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