Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A Tove Jansson exhibition - by Sue Purkiss

I somehow missed the Moomins as a child. I think after that I was vaguely aware that they existed (cue existential debate!), but the first Tove Jansson book I read was one for adults, The Summer Book. I came across it in a bookshop, and just liked the look of it; it's very blue, which is my favourite colour, and it shows a small island floating between sea and sky.

It's about a summer in the lives of a child, Sophie, and her grandmother, on a tiny island off the Finnish coast. Sophie's mother is dead; her father's there some of the time, but he's very much a background presence. It's about the small things that happen each day: the things you have to be careful of when you live on a very small island which is vulnerable to fierce storms, like tying your boat up securely; the flowers and shells you find; the talks you have; the people who occasionally visit. It's suffused with the calmness of the sea, but also the underlying threat of storms. Tove Jansson's prose is clear as a rock pool, as elegant and beautifully shaped as a sea-washed pebble.

I went on from there to read most of her other adult books, but The Summer Book remains my favourite. I've also now read a couple of the children's books, which share the same precise prose, apparently grave but with laughter underlying it. She's incredibly inventive. As you travel with the Moomins through their world, its landscape and inhabitants unfold perfectly naturally, as if they've existed forever.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary about her life, and saw the island and the house which feature in The Summer Book, and the footage of Tove taken by her partner, Tuulikki - of Tove dancing beside the sea with flowers in her hair. So a few weeks ago, when we were on holiday in Copenhagen and saw that an exhibition about her was to begin while we were there, it was too good a chance to miss.

It was fascinating. It showed how talented she was in so many ways. She started as an artist - and very much wanted to succeed as a painter, not only as an illustrator. So here are many of her paintings, as well as satirical illustrations from the war years (Finland was invaded by Russia in 1939) in a magazine called Garm, and illustrations she did for other books besides her own.

Alice in Wonderland

The exhibition was first put on in Helsinki, in 2014, 100 years after her birth, and now it's touring Europe. I'm not certain, but I think it may be the one that's going to be at the Dulwich Art Gallery from 25th October this year. It certainly has some of the same works. (I hope it also has the wonderful room for children which was at the top of the building in Copenhagen: a sort of enchanted forest with crayons dangling from white columns, where you are invited to make your own notes and sketches - see below.)

I thought the self-portraits were particularly interesting. Very honest - almost brutally so. She saw so very clearly.


Susan Price said...

Thanks for this, Sue. Loved those self-portraits and the Alice illustration.

Helen Larder said...

Thanks! 'The Summer Book' is my favourite adult novel of hers too xxxx

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating post, Sue! I was first a fan of "Moomintroll" but then graduated to "The Summer Book" and also loved the TV programme. The exhibition looks wonderful - thank you for giving us a taster.

Dotty Jo x said...

Loved this book when I read it two years ago. Thanks for a lovely post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, everyone - your comments are much appreciated.

Sharon Tregenza said...

Interesting post, Sue. Enjoyed it very much.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely! Thankyou Sue. The self-portraits are wonderful.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Oddly today without having read your post first... Clapham Books asked on Twitter what book do you buy most often either in various editions or to give away to friends... and I wrote – The Summer Book. And then here was your post of yesterday.

Its such a marvellous evocation of a grandmother's relationship with a young child. Crusty, sensible, loving and creative all rolled into one. Can't wait fro the Dulwich exhibition. Just love those self portraits.