The ideal of Scandinavian living is in vogue. Today it is possible, though not advisable, to buy how-to guides on hygge, the Danish art of cozy living. The Swedes, who think that the Danes are coarse and hence only cozy in the way of pigs in slurry, have their own untranslatable word, mysig, for the correct degree of coziness.

Really, Scandinavian living has never been out of vogue since Strindberg and Ibsen first pulled the rug from under the Lutheran paterfamilias. Wilde and Shaw repeated this trick in translation, thus forging the Anglophone perception of Scandinavians as atomized moderns, anguished and plain-speaking pioneers of a miserable track from Lutheranism to Existentialism. The Scandinavian drama, or at least its consequences for the Scandinavian family, survives in debased form in the television format known as “Nordic Noir.” The detectives live alone, drink alone, and eat cold frankfurters by the light of the fridge. Their wives have left, taking their single children with them: family counseling by Ibsen. The victims in Nordic Noir usually live alone, too. The murderers, in Strindbergian style, tend to come from affluent families.

The Scandinavians may have rejected the family, but they still idealize the home.

The Scandinavians may have rejected the family, but they still idealize the home. After 1945, Swedish designers of furniture and politics repackaged the losing ideals of Weimar Germany—pacifism, socialism, metal furniture, the welfare state—into a winning vision, an escape from history into stripped-down, stripped-pine simplicity. The Swedish welfare state is folkhemmet, “the people’s home.” It is as though the entire populace has reverted to the extended household of the pre-modern family, and wished the Lutheran asperities of the nuclear family into the benign secular nucleus of the bureaucracy, dispensing fairness and paternity leave where once there was hostility and emotional parsimony.

It was a Swedish actress, Greta Garbo, who said she wanted to be alone, and a Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who documented what it felt like. It was, however, Tove Jansson (1914–2001), a Swedish-speaking Finn, who may have produced the most truthful record of the inner life of postwar Scandinavia. Best known in the English-speaking world as the illustrator of the Moomintroll comic strips, Jansson was also a painter, cartoonist, and writer of stories for children and adults. In Scandinavia, the breadth of her work is common knowledge. The Helsinki Art Museum contains a permanent Jansson gallery, and sends visitors out on a “Life Path of Tove” sculpture trail around her hometown. There is even a Moomin Museum in nearby Tampere, featuring the Moominhouse, a five-story doll’s house that Jansson built. And posthumously, the Moominlegend has incorporated Jansson’s complex and often unhappy private life.

“Tove Jansson,” now at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, is a comprehensive survey, and the first Jansson exhibition designed for a foreign audience.1 Apart from demonstrating her merits as an illustrator and her foreshortened career as a painter, the exhibition describes a rare case, that of the Scandinavian artist whose career was transformed by World War II. It also illustrates the paradox that while artworks may stand alone, their creation may be inextricable from the lives of their creators.

In Self-Portrait with Wicker Chair (1937), Jansson perches herself on the corner of a table. Her canvases, still lifes in Matisse’s palette, are on the walls behind her; the left margin is pressed into the painting by a door frame. Her companion, the wicker chair, has a cushion over its nether regions. The cushion, lively with red, blue, mauve, and yellow, is the most disturbed area of an otherwise still painting. The cushion and chair are bisected by the brown leg of an easel, which pushes the right margin towards Jansson, and drives downwards to the bottom margin like a spike. If it kept going, it would converge with Jansson’s right leg, which is painted in the same wood-brown tones, or even pin her foot to the floor. On the easel, another canvas has its back to the viewer; only Jansson, or a sitter in the wicker chair, can see it. Squeezed between the door and the canvas, escape and revelation, Jansson sits erect, almost ironic in her discomfort. The shadowed side of her face is towards the unseen canvas.

Tove Jansson, Self-Portrait, 1939, Oil on canvas,  the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

In Self-Portrait (1939), the palette and the dilemma are more intense. The focus has narrowed to a head-and-shoulders portrait. Her cigarette burns like a fuse, and the thick scumbles of color on her smock are like kindling. In the spring of 1938, Jansson visited Paris and studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where her parents had met in 1913. In early 1939, Jansson traveled in Italy, where the high point of her experiences was lighting a cigarette from the crater of Vesuvius. Her painting was maturing rapidly, and she was synthesizing her influences. The Breton beach scene of Blue Hyacinth (1939) begins with the conventions of French modernism—the curtain in the breeze, the open shutter, the metal balustrade, the plant pot on the window sill—but the beach is not blanched by southern light, so much as bleakened by a low northern sun. The two women in black weeds who walk on the foreshore could be the widowed aunts of Edvard Munch. It is as though Jansson, in the cold climate of the warm South, is looking back to a Nordic nightmare.

Or forward, for Jansson had passed through Germany on her way to Italy, and seen the “blackjackets” on parade. She returned to Helsinki and was caught in Finland’s peculiar war—against the Russians when Stalin and Hitler were allies, then against the Russians with German support, and finally against the Germans with the Allies.

Tove Jansson, Blue Hyacinth, 1939, Oil on canvas,  the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

In Family (1942), Jansson places herself at the center of the five-person tableau, but wearing her coat, gloves, and hat, as if she has just walked back into the drama. Thin-lipped, she shoots a sidelong glance at her mother, who sits on the left side at her drawing table, white-haired in a white dress. Her mother does not look at Tove, but at Tove’s father, who has just walked in from the right, wearing his white sculptor’s smock. He carries a newspaper under his arm; part of a headline, the word “Nazi,” could almost be pinned like a badge to his smock. In the foreground, Tove’s two younger brothers play chess; the elder, Per Olov, is in uniform. The colors of the chessmen, red and white, are the colors of the Finnish Civil War.

The painting is theatrically tense, a Scandinavian family drama.

The painting is theatrically tense, a Scandinavian family drama. Tove’s father, known to the family as “Faffan,” was a lifelong enemy of Bolshevism and a supporter of Germany, but many of Tove’s friends were communists and Jews. Through the Thirties, she had sought out work as an illustrator in order to contribute to her family’s income. This work included drawing covers for the liberal-conservative magazine Garm, which satirized both Hitler and Stalin. Relations came to a crisis while Tove worked on The Family. “Now the great crash I feared but expected for so many years has come,” she wrote to her friend Eva Konikoff, a Jewish refugee from Russia. “Faffan and I said we hated each other . . . . It would be nice to stop living, but one goes on all the same.” She moved out of the family home.

In Swedish myth, Garm is the black dog of hell. The war depressed Jansson profoundly. Food was short, friends were killed, and the Russians bombed Helsinki. She fantasized about escape, to an artists’ colony in Spain or Morocco, or a pilot’s cottage in the Pellinki Islands, or the houseboat Christopher Columbus, or running away with her youngest brother Lasse to Tonga. “In this time of complete inversion of all moral and ethical concepts,” she wrote to Eva Konikoff, “it is difficult for those who have not yet managed to establish an attitude to their environment to find a foothold—I mean, for the young.”

In October 1943, Jansson held her first solo exhibition in Helsinki. The show included two further self-portraits, both depicting her loneliness. In Woman (1942), she follows the artist’s path, and sees herself partially disrobed in her artist’s garret. In Lynx Boa (1942), she presents herself to the public. Her skin is like cold wax, and her expression is as fixed and sphingine as that of the dead lynx. The exhibition also included Garden (1943), a vision of southern escape. “All our misfortunes are simply the fault of the war,” she wrote in her notebook, “But what shall we do when we can no longer blame the war?”

Conceived in Paris and born in Helsinki, Jansson was the first child of a pre-1914 modern marriage. Her father, Viktor Jansson, was a sculptor from Finland’s Finnish-Swedish minority. Her mother, Signe Hammarsten, was a Swedish illustrator, a pastor’s daughter from Stockholm. Viktor and Signe had met while studying art in Paris, and they were determined to raise a family of artists. Her mother first drew Tove the day after she was born. “Maybe we’ll have a great artist in Tove one day,” her father wrote in 1918, while fighting the pro-Russian Red Guard in the civil war that led to Finland’s independence. Tove’s younger brothers, Per Olov and Lasse, came after the war. All three children became artists of varying kinds, and Per Olov and Lasse were to collaborate with Tove as the Moominbusiness took off.

The family apartment was also Viktor’s studio, so the rooms were lightly dusted with plaster. The narrowness of the Janssons’ self-conscious bohemianism was compounded by their status as members of a linguistic minority. Finnish’s sibling language is Hungarian, not Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian, and Signe never managed to learn enough Finnish to converse with Viktor’s Finnish friends. While Signe sustained the household through her work as a designer of postage stamps and bank notes, family life was driven by Viktor’s egotism, and defined by his public sculptures, memorials to the Civil War depicting naked, sword-wielding Attic heroes. One of them is at Tempere, now the site of the Moomin Museum but in 1918 the site of the war’s biggest battle, which leveled much of the town and ended with the victorious Whites massacring hundreds of Red prisoners.

In the autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), Tove describes the climax of her parents’ parties, at which her father would play the balalaika.

Gradually all the candles on the balustrade go out and candle wax runs down onto the sofa. When the music finishes there are war stories. Then I wait under the bedclothes but I always come up again when they attack the wicker chair. Then Daddy goes and fetches his bayonet which hangs above the sacks of plaster in the studio and everybody jumps and shouts and Daddy attacks the chair. During the day it is covered with a rug so you can’t see what it looks like. After the wicker chair Daddy doesn’t want to play his balalaika any more.

Tove modeled for her father’s sculptures from childhood until the age of twenty-six. Two nudes, Convolvulus and Mermaid (both 1931), are stops on the “Life Path of Tove” sculpture trail. The convolvulus is the bindweed, also known as the lifeline. When Tove won a scholarship to Paris and followed her parents’ footsteps by enrolling at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Viktor came along. Father and daughter wrote home to wife and mother, both saying how “happy” they were. “Tove is my escort,” Viktor wrote to Signe, “but often I have the feeling that it’s you, darling, at my side.”

Viktor Jansson, Convolvulus, 1931, BronzeKaisaniemi Park, HelsinkiPhoto: Heikki Kastemaa

“It’s easy to escape into something else,” Jansson wrote in her diary as she struggled towards her first exhibition. “I escaped into a childish watercolor landscape, a dream-forest of forbidden possibilities.” In Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, the child’s-eye narrative tips violently from family scenes of bourgeois plenitude to spooked and punitive Lutheranism. In Jansson’s work, the Moomins tiptoed in quietly. They first appear in the Thirties, as little black goblins on the margins. They become more human in the war years, as Jansson discovered that an imaginative “back door” still led to that “creepy yet secure world with red and green skies and a violence of details.” She wrote the first Moomin story, “Moomintroll’s Strange Journey,” in early 1944.

In a Garm cover from January 1945, a proto-Moomin pushes the damned, black-faced figures with swastikas stamped on their backs, into a machine marked “Metamorphosis Company.” Angelic figures in white smocks float out of the chimney, wearing halos and innocent faces, a whited Moomin among them. The cartoon, which criticized the laundering of collaborationist reputations as Finland changed sides, precedes the first publication of photographs showing the “violence of details” in the death camps. Around this time, Ingmar Bergman was directing plays in Helsingborg, Sweden. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern (1987), he complains that the noise of Allied bombers flying down the channel between Nazi-occupied Denmark and neutral Sweden interrupted his rehearsals. Who was living in a fantasy world, during the war and after: Bergman or Jansson?

Her line is always sharp, the composition always droll, and the pacing of the narrative controlled.

“It was the utterly hellish war years that made me, an artist, write fairy tales,” Jansson said. After 1945, and the publication of the first Moomin stories, the mirror of the self-portrait became the window into the dream-forest of the Moomins. The central trio of the Moomin saga are Moominpappa and Moominmamma, the self-absorbed but benevolent artists, and Moomintrollet, their son. Two girls drift into the bohemian household. Mymlan is calm, as self-contained as the protagonist of The Summer Book (1972), in which the island-loving Jansson describes the Jansson-like holidays of a Jansson-like woman who loves islands. Lilla My, Mymlan’s younger sister, has a small child’s candor. The apocalypse is always near—the comet, the volcano, the storm, the atom bomb, the Soviets—but the family bumbles through.

Jansson was a born illustrator, and she grew up into one, too. The Dulwich exhibition includes this extended happy ending. Her line is always sharp, the composition always droll, and the pacing of the narrative controlled. The captions never pander, but retain the perceptive intelligence of children. The artistic world that Jansson creates is so total and assured that when she illustrates Swedish editions of The Hobbit and The Hunting of the Snark, it seems only reasonable that the words of Tolkien and Carroll should take the forms of Moominland.

Ibsen, writing of Hedda Gabler, wrote that “Hedda is to be regarded as her father’s daughter, not her husband’s wife.” Tove did not escape like Hedda, through choosing to “stop living.” Nor did she slam the door for good, like Nora at the end of A Doll’s House. Instead, she rewrote the family romance as her mother’s daughter, an illustrator. From the failures of history, familial and civilizational, she retrieved the ideals of family, home, hearth, and the free play of the imagination—the fundamental elements, in fact, of mysig living.

1 “Tove Jansson” opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, on October 25, 2017 and remains on view through January 28, 2018.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 16
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion |

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