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In the years leading to the Second World War, a young girl drew a curious character on a wall at her family’s summer cottage. Furious and flustered, having just bickered with her younger brothers, the aspiring artist scribbled in haste.
The young girl was Tove Jansson and the character was a Moomin, a hippo-like troll whose rounded snout and philosophical musings would, one day, assure Jansson’s place as one of the most beloved artists and authors Finland has ever produced.
Born in Helsinki 105 years ago, Jansson was surrounded by creativity as a child. Her mother, Signe Hammarsten, was a renowned illustrator and her father, Viktor Jansson, was a prominent sculptor, whose works can still be found on display in the capital.
Encouraged by her Swedish-speaking parents, Jansson showed talent early on, as did her younger brothers, Per Olov, who later became a photographer and Lars, who grew to be a writer and Moomin cartoonist.
Passionate and determined, Jansson studied in Stockholm, Helsinki, and later Paris, but had trouble, at times, reconciling her own vision with established forms. In her painting class, at the Ateneum, the Graphic School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Jansson also encountered a gender-based glass ceiling that threatened to derail her career.
Raised to value freedom and expression, Jansson rebelled, leaving the Ateneum and establishing an artists’ collective with her fellow students.
By 1939, Jansson had earned a reputation as an emerging artist, but it was the years that followed that had the most profound impact upon her career. Shaken by the outbreak of the Second World War, and fearful for her brother’s safety on the frontline, Jansson sought escape in her art.
Her relentless routine, painting by day and illustrating by night, not only served as a coping mechanism, but also served to propel her name into even greater prominence.
It was amid the uncertainty of the Second World War that Jansson wrote the first book featuring the Moomin family and their ragtag band of friends. Published in 1945, Jansson sought to create an alternative universe in which peace, friendship and acceptance prevailed.
Her whimsical characters were instantly embraced and Jansson was soon approached by a London publisher to produce a daily newspaper comic strip, which reached some 20 million readers in more than 40 countries.
The response was unparalleled: it was soon possible to purchase Moomin wallpaper, brooches and even wastepaper baskets and Jansson received letters from countless adoring fans, to which, for many years, she personally replied.
She continued to write about the Moomin family, but Jansson also yearned to pursue other passions, asserting that she was, above all, a painter. In 1960 Jansson stepped back from the comic strip, handing over the reins to her collaborator and brother, Lars.
As well as her Moomin series, Jansson also wrote novels and short stories for an adult audience, including one entitled, The Summer Book, which was set on a small Finnish island.
A recurring theme in her work, Jansson loved the sea and the archipelago in which she had spent her childhood summers. Hoping to make a home there one day, Jansson realized her ambition in the 1960s when she and her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, built a summer cottage on a rocky islet known as Klovharu.
The pair spent almost 30 summers on the island, working alongside each other in the serene surroundings. Pietilä was a celebrated graphic artist in her own right, and collaborated with Jansson on numerous projects, including the beloved Moomin dioramas now on display at the Moomin Museum in Tampere.
Both Jansson and Pietilä loved to travel, and embarked on an eight-month journey across the world together in 1971, relishing the opportunity to work in relative tranquillity.
In 1990, some 20 years after Jansson wrote the final book featuring the Moomin family, an animated series appeared on television. Sold to over 60 countries, the cartoon brought Jansson’s creation to a new audience, eager to embrace the playful and peaceful world in which the Moomins lived.
Three years later, Jansson traveled to Paris, returning to the city she had adored on her first excursion abroad in 1934. It was her last journey; Jansson died in Helsinki on June 27 2001.
It is no small feat to summarise the colossal contribution Jansson made in her illustrious career. Given that the Moomin series has been translated into 50 languages, it is hardly surprising that the fantastical family is perhaps her best-known work.
Her achievements, however, extend far beyond Moominvalley. As an author, painter and illustrator, Jansson was a prodigious talent, whose work has only continued to draw acclaim in the passing years
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