Friday 19 April 2019

‘TOVE JANSSON (1914-2001)’

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Munch-like Melancholia

Tove Jansson is of course known to one and all as the writer and illustrator of the Moomin books. But this show tells us something previously unknown, at least to me, she “always considered herself primarily as a painter”. And, though her illustrations form part of the show, it has enough courage in this conviction not just to start off with her paintings but run them for the first few rooms.

Two paintings might map the course of this double career. In ’Self-Portrait’, (1937, above) she sits bold upright and alert, her angular features akin to her work, every inch an ambitious young artist. Completed still lives and portraits sit behind her, another still-life to her side ready to be painted and added to the oeuvre.

’The Graphic Artist’ (1975, above) continues the conceit of an artist who resembles their own work. But in every other way it’s entirely different. She’s hunched not over an easel but a drawing board, pen in hand. This time she doesn’t look up at us, not the assertive genius but the commercial artist always working, with no time for visitors. There’s less space given over to the room, with no window at all. The colours are more dark and deep than bright, while the works we see are dominated by black and white. The figure is largely defined by a bold black outline.

Jansson was Finnish (though Swedish-speaking), and in contravention to her work for children your first response is to indulge in Nordic stereotypes about Munch-like melancholia. In for example ‘After Party’ (1941, above) any actual party probably happened weeks ago. Most of the figures are arranged in couples, though one only has a dog. But rather than see them as dancing or snogging, they seem to facelessly cling together in empty space. One just gazes listlessly out the window. 

The colour scheme, dominated by deep reds and sickly greens, certainly recalls Munch. And, though the colours are more muted it also seems reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘The Night Cafe’ (1888). Both seem to depict the spaces between things more than the things themselves.

As is well known, the Moomins were based on Jansson’s own family. Yet, though she was only shortly to begin the books, there’s little sign of that in ‘Family’ (1942, above). The figures are bunched closer together than in ‘After Party’, but no-one is dressed in a similar manner or even meets each others’ gaze. (Though she and her mother cast glances at each other.) Even the chairs the two brothers sit on differ, as if everyone’s in their own space despite the proximity to each other. Jansson depicts herself in funereal black.

’Mysterious Landscape’(1930) may be more presaging. In the words of Rebecca Sykes of the Arts Desk it “reveals an appetite for the fantastical that would come to fruition in the artist’s illustration work.” Admittedly it’s more interesting than successful. It’s evocative but, an early work, unaccomplished - even awkward. What might be most interesting about it is that the environment is liminal rather than outright fantastical. Despite the anti-naturalist colour scheme, with blood red trees and plants seemingly the size of trees, it borders a recognisably modern town.

The Graphic Artist

Erodingany easy distinctions between ‘grown up’ painting and ‘juvenile’ illustration Jansson’searly illustrations were political cartoons for the adult market. She drew for the satirical magazine ’Garm’ from 1929 (when she was still fifteen) to 1953. But it’s the war years which inevitably grab at the attention. As Finland was caught in an increasingly tightening pincer gripped jointly by Hitler and Stalin, Jansson somewhat fearlessly mocked them both. 

Two things are noticeable. There’s the degree to which political leaders were portrayed as tantrummy man-babies demanding more cake. (Good job things have progressed since then.) And her penchant for contrasting the base and worldly with the mythical and celestial. See the angel of peace in the searchlight, in the cover to the September 1943 cover (below.) In others, Father Christmas can merrily show up.

”Wild Things Threaten To Pounce”

Though of course I’m a fan of Jansson’s illustrations for her own Moomin series, ironically my favourite works were for other and even-better-known books. Beyond both being popular children’s books, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Alice’, might seem to have one thing in common - and it’s not promising for a budding illustrator. They’re both strong associated with illustrators already, in Tolkien’s case his own.

True, Tolkien always regarded himself as an amateur artist. And his own illustrations are surprisingly uninterested in delineating his characters, as if he doesn’t want to completely give them away. In fact his drawings don’t even look that much like environments, they’re more like stage sets. While in Carrol’s case John Tenniel’s illustrations accompanied the first edition (in 1865), and are so considered part of the book it’s virtually a graphic novel. For example Carroll doesn’t describe the Hatter, or even call him Mad. But our memories inevitably fuse together his words and Tenniel’s art.

But there’s a more important point of comparison between the two books. Both ‘Alice’ and ‘The Hobbit’ pass, they look reassuringly twee and so can appear as child-appropriate when once-overed by concerned adults. And then when they reach children’s hands they’re seen more for the uncanny artefacts they are. Perhaps they needed that disguise element in order to become so disseminated. But they managed to put the folk tales back into reassuring children’s stories. Significantly Jansson zeroes straight in on this uncanniness, in fact more so than when illustrating her own work. See for her example her depiction of Bilbo encountering Gollum (1962, below).

Fans of the film may well be perplexed at this. The ring-obsessed, treacherous, spiteful creature we now think of was a retcon to match the plot lines Tolkien was developing in ‘Lord of the Rings’.His being a ‘fallen Hobbit’, the sort of twist everyone know knows too well, isn’t revealed until the later book. The original was something of a threshold guardian, even his size originally going unspecified until he became a “small slimy creature”.

Jansson’s illustrations date from 1962, well after ‘Lord of the Rings’ was published. But she was most likely working from the original version of ‘The Hobbit’, as the powerful elemental creature she depicts is much more the original. However it arose, it’s this Gollum which best suits her art style. The impassive, mask-like face is archetypical of her work.

Further, with his pointed head and gradated figure, Gollum looks remarkably like one of the stalagmites behind him has come to life. And, in another illustration from the same book (below), the explorers again stand dwarfed in the lower right corner. And again the landscape itself seems alive, with plumes of smoke and fire issuing from the raised cave mouth.

With Tolkien there’s no obvious authorial voice, which would intrude between the reader and what he’s describing. (In contrast to Lewis, however often the two are compared.) Which makes his writing immersive. It becomes a kind of prose equivalent to landscape painting, which suggests grand immensity partly by suggesting those mountains and forests extend off past the edges of the known story. Jansson’s eerie illustrations capture this expansiveness, but at the same time have something claustrophobic about them. The figures aren’t just diminished, they seem reduced to ciphers.

’Comet in Moominland’ (1946, above), from one of her own books, pushes things along from fantastical into fully fledged Surreal. A ship seems to have been wrecked among mountains, while the stilt-walking figures recall Dali. The heavy stippling and dense blacks makes the whites, including the blaze of the comet, vivid. But they also make her landscapes look contoured and ‘real’, undeniably present even as the imagery is so hallucinogenic.

On one level this would seem a bizarre thing to give a child for bedtime reading. On another, its evocation of figures adrift in overwhelming strangeness captures the way a child can feel about the existing world. You’re alternately a small thing, lost in the seemingly incomprehensible, and an intrepid explorer. 

A description of ’The Dangerous Journey’ (1977) captures this: “A little girl is transported… from the tedium of a summer afternoon into an exciting world of mangrove swamps, spluttering volcanoes and sea, where birds fly upside down and wild things threaten to pounce.” And see the poster image (up top), of a Moomin on the threshold of a dark doorway and another adventure.

Comics, Posters, Paintings

It’s often unappreciated how illustrations and comic strips are two different media. Comic strips, in the main, stand or fall on their ability to create narrative flow. The images pull the eye along, just as a good piece of writing does to the brain. Marry good comic art to an involving storyline, and you get a double whammy. Whereas Jansson’s illustrations tend to be tableaus, which hold the eye in place. Her landscapes look, if anything, untraversable.

So I remain unsmitten by her Moomin newspaper strips. It’s true they were wildly popular in their day. But with the figures filling frames with bold clear outlines, with their sense of motion rather than monumentality, they seem not to be playing to Jansson’s strengths. (See ’Moomin on the Riviera’, above.) Indeed, though she continued the strips for six years (1954 to 59) she passed them on to her brother Lars, suggesting for her they weren’t a priority.

The show’s defence of them is the general one for newspaper strips, that the platform allowed them to be written for both a child and adult audience. It mentions “a satirical streak”. And, true enough in one example, Moomintroll asks innocently “who owns everything here?” to be told “people with money, of course”.

Yet Jansson also excelled at bold, graphic images with vivid blocks of colour. The covers to the Moomin books are all memorable, and see below her striking Seventies poster ’Keep Sweden Clean’.

She continued to paint through all this, though her style could be quite different to earlier. The show suggests that her later work was a response to the criticism they were too illustrational, and so became more (in it’s words) “painterly”. ’Abstract Sea’ (1963, below), for example is quite well served by its title. It is what it’s of, never quite seeming to settle before your eyes. The ever-shifting sea may well be, in that sense of the term, the most “painterly” subject of all. And if you’re going to paint a painting, why not do something which could only be a painting?

It may be that her success in illustration allowed her to channel her different creative energies. If ’Mysterious Landscape’ was midway between painting and drawing, now she could achieve both separately. Which makes perfect sense. The painting and poster above differ wildly, but have one thing in common – they gain their effect through being true to their own form.

If Jansson had been granted her wish to become a full-time painter she’d have become an accomplished artist, but there wouldn’t be solo exhibitions of her today. It was in the illustrations where she excelled. Yet critics often indulge in an unspoken hierarchy of the arts. Painting is held to be innately superior to illustration, which itself gets to look down on comic art.

Though they never say so, and most likely never think it, their precious rarified values are actually driven by brute commerce. If art is not made for reproduction that throws a higher value on the original, which raises its preciousness. The point is to expose these loaded assumptions. Whereas the temptation, easier but mistaken, is to simply reverse them.

Jansson may well have genuinely preferred her painting to her other work, not just sought the greater cultural approval they might have brought. After all, accounts suggest she was a strong-willed individual. But even if she did that, it doesn’t mean we have to go along with her.

Though the twist in that tale is that her paintings occupy a separate category to her illustration work, and when she tries to blend the two the result is often something of a mish-mash. This would of course have fuelled the prejudices of critics, who could portray her painting as infected by her more vulgar illustrations. But that view works only from taking a very selective sample.

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