IIn 1964, when she was 50 years old, Moomin creator Tove Jansson settled on the island of her dreams. Klovharun, in the Finnish archipelago, is small (about 6,000 square meters) and isolated, “a rock in the middle of nowhere,” according to Jansson’s niece, Sophia. It hardly has any foliage, it has no running water or electricity. Yet for Jansson it was an oasis. For 18 years, she and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä spent long summers there, leaving Helsinki as soon as the ice broke in April, leaving only in early October. The island meant “privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences.”
Klovharun sums up some of Jansson’s originality as an artist and writer, and her human presence. His Moomin picture books, which began publication just after World War II, brought him phenomenal acclaim and devotion. The stories of lovable troll creatures have carried generations of hippie hearts; their pear-shaped faces have adorned a million neckties. Her marketing triumph, in which Jansson enthusiastically participated, overshadowed her other accomplishments as a painter, novelist, short story writer, anti-Nazi cartoonist, and magazine cover designer. The success may also have obscured how ambivalent he was, how often he was at the cusp of identities. She grew up in Finland speaking Swedish, had male and female lovers, told her stories in pictures and prose, lived both in water and on land. More and more it appears as a pioneer. Not least in his crystalline descriptions of the natural world.
In the last decade, nature writing has exploded in Britain and has proven to be remarkably diverse. Robert Macfarlane has made us consider roads as revealing “the habits of a landscape.” Tim Dee has reminded us to look at the sky and listen to the birds; Merlin Sheldrake’s studies on fungi are making us consider what fusions are taking place under our feet; Alice Oswald’s poetry can make you hear the water move like the blood in your veins. These investigations have had a strong impact on cities over the past year, with the closures raving about the idea of an unreachable open space and the miniature excitement of their own neighborhoods, the individual flowers they can attract to their apartments.
Tove Jansson’s writing is different. It has wonderful passages in which entire landscapes are formed looking at the blades of grass and pieces of bark. However, his main Moomin adventures are surprisingly catastrophic. Despite the slight clarity of the prose, which is comical, benign, and mocking, these books depict places dominated by fierce forces, ravaged by storms, floods, and snow. They speak (but never obviously) of characters that resonate with the winds and seas that surround them. They include visions that now read as warnings of climate change: “the great gap that had been the sea in front of them, the dark red sky above, and behind, the forest gasping from the heat.”
There is some delight in these extremes: Jansson loved storms and his island aesthetic is distinctive. Anti-lush, sculpted by the elements rather than gently patterned by a human hand. This is not like living in a garden. Everything is provisional, caught in the winds and fog and being swept away. It’s the outdoor equivalent of throwing out your chintz. What’s more, it’s about writing about nature that provides not only wonder and leisure, but also a way of life. Jansson and Pietilä worked hard to stay in Klovharun: they cut firewood, built bonfires, rowed boats, gutted fish. His attitude reminds me of James Rebanks, the inspiring Cumbrian sheep farmer, who notes that while visitors gaze out over the moors and hills and see the beauty, his fellow farmers see livelihood, income and work.
In an unlikely but convincing way, two museum curators have found an echo of Jansson’s Island in an area of north London. Looking at a photograph of Klovharun, Mhairi Muncaster and Alison Williams noticed a striking resemblance to Walthamstow Wetlands Nature Reserve, where a network of reservoirs contains islands named after bird colonies: Cormorant Island, desolate by bird poop, with huge rocks and skeletal trees, is particularly similar.
They came up with the idea of a two-part festival that aims to shed light on the island life and work of Jansson and Pietilä. Its title echoes Jansson’s response to DH Lawrence’s 1928 tale The Man Who Loved the Islands. “How about,” suggested Jansson in the spring of 1963, “the woman who fell in love with an island?”
Next year there will be an exhibition of original works by Jansson and Pietilä at the William Morris Gallery; Most of Pietilä’s work (she was a graphic designer) has never been seen outside of Helsinki. The paintings will include landscapes and a large number of self-portraits. Muncaster explains to me over the phone that one of the main themes will be “natural disasters,” a driving force in Moomin’s books. A couple of years ago, she and Williams visited Jansson’s studio in Helsinki, shown by the family. “All his things are still there” and “on the bathroom door is this collage of disasters”, the most memorable is a picture of an erupting volcano. Pietilä also “seems to have been interested in the disaster. Much of his work refers to war, forests, fires, floods. “
Meanwhile, next month, a family trail, aimed primarily at children, will take visitors through the Walthamstow wetlands: they will be guided by Moomin footprints and cut-out figures; A Victorian roundhouse will be used to display photographs, taken by Tove’s brother, of the women in the cabin and off the island.
Orcadian composer Erland Cooper is composing a soundscape, bringing together keyboard music with field recordings (wind, birds, sea, and creaks inside the hut) recorded in Klovharun. Sophia Jansson will be heard reading her aunt’s essay, The Island, in which she evokes island colors (cobalt, Naples yellow, black silhouettes) and island fears. There is “shaking in the dark”, “peculiar sound sensations”: laughter and elusive howls and voices.
Sophia Jansson vividly recalls the simplicity and welcome of Klovharun where, while her father discussed Moomin matters with her sister, she wandered the island plunging into rock pools. The planks of the hut had darkened over time and acquired, as he tells me over the phone from Finland, “a yellow-orange tint. To emphasize that, they had an orange bedspread and a blue rug. The colors melted, it always felt warm. “
Like the lighthouse in which the author sang Moominpappa in the sea, the only room in the cabin had windows that looked in all directions so that Tove and Pietilä could look at the horizon from 360 degrees and see the winds and storms coming and going. Sitting at separate desks (in Helsinki they lived in separate apartments linked by a hallway in the attic), they “got into the day a lot.” While Jansson wrote, Pietilä drew or filmed with his 8mm camera. From time to time they had a joint project, building scenes from the Moomin books, with Pietilä making the 3D models and Jansson painting them: “That was their playtime.”
The diet was simple: stale bread, butter, cheese, fresh fish, everything else canned. It was “almost camping”. Sometimes totally camping. While they waited for the house to be built, the women set up a tent, but when the house was ready “they liked the tent so much that they decided to continue sleeping there and let the guests stay in the house”.
Still, Jansson was not a hippy. “I feel quite cocky,” she wrote when besieged by television crews in the 1960s, “but I also try to keep my image: sweet, cultivated and ravishing daughter of nature.”
You can see her sharpness in her paintings: ingenious, immediate, contemplative. In his diaries, a quick and wild sketch from 1931 shows a woman with high heels and orange hair walking through moonlit Stockholm. The canvases include wonderful self-portraits, of Jansson smoking, Jansson with a boa and Jansson in his 20s with a Rembrandt fur hat; he also produced an image of a Moomin posing as Rembrandt. Watercolors and sketches rejoice in the natural world: in its exhilarating freedoms, seen in the birds soaring over a Moomin conversation, and in its momentary calm, as shown in the watercolor of an idyllic island, painted for the cover from a Swedish book. The black and white illustrations in Moomin’s books evoke windblown snows, cliffs that rise like waves, and waves that appear as diamond as rocks.
The paintings are very well captured in Zaida Bergroth’s Swedish biographical film, Tove, which focuses on the writer’s love affairs with men and women before her life with Pietilä, in particular an intense romance with the director that put the Moomins on stage. Rich in reds and golds, with a charming and heartfelt central performance by Alma Pöysti, the film evokes a Scandinavian bohemian with skin, open heart and trouble. The landlady sees a lover getting into her pants while Jansson offers a canvas in lieu of the overdue rent.
Jansson created books that are unlike any other writing for children or adults, although Roald Dahl was surely leaning towards her when he wrote: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nineteen years earlier, in 1945, Jansson had created a confectionery landscape in his first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, with snow ice cream, finely spun sugargrass and chocolate trees.
They avoid all the pitfalls of children’s books of the time. They are not anthropomorphic, sentimental, or funny. They are marked by the experience of war: seeing houses reduced to rubble and families wandering through ruined landscapes in search of a place to settle. There is fear in them. However, no moral thing hangs over these books. There is no hero worship, no demonization, no punitive framework of the kind that ruins The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There is not a single tribe around the Moomin table: there is no right way to be or to look. Jansson’s charming racing cartoons are as welcoming to pot-bellied Moomins as they are to the spiky independence of Little My, another type of troll, small enough to get lost in a sewing basket, given “monotonous songs of wet water “and effervescent fury:” Every little creep has the right to be angry, “he says. And he continues to peel potatoes with his teeth.
The woman who fell in love with an island An exhibition trail opens in the Walthamstow Wetlands Nature Reserve this month
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism