Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Dark side of the Moomins

Her early work as a graphic artist are striking and her illustrations for The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll are a revelation in this Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition

Tove Jansson, according to her niece’s husband, was a squirt in size and could rarely be persuaded to eat, preferring instead to smoke fags and drink whisky. And when she did eat, it was usually salted cucumbers — to go with the drink. You know, this late in life, I may have encountered my role model.

We were at the launch of an excellent edition of four books in her Moomin series at the Finnish embassy. London is in the grip of a kind of Moomin madness right now, what with the books, a Moomin event at the South Bank and a new exhibition of Tove Jansson’s artwork at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Which is good news for Finland, on account of the Moomins being one of its two big cultural exports — the other being Santa Claus, who obviously lives in Lapland.

Tove, according to her niece Sophie, invested something of herself in all her Moomin characters — though Moominmama was squarely based on her mother — and particularly in Little My. I was glad to hear it: Little My, with her amorality, diabolical grin and ruthless instinct for survival, is fabulous. But the wonder of the Moomins is that with so little back story and so few explanations, readers can be drawn so strongly to them and the strange, familiar, compelling creatures that populate their world. We enter that world as if we know it has always existed. The pictures go with the story and tell the story. Tove Jansson was a master of clear line — just marvel at the lovely rounded edge of Moomin’s snout — and as a draughtsman was, I reckon, up there with Hergé, creator of Tintin.

The exhibition of her work at Dulwich is small but compelling, each room given a striking colour, with a little room in the middle for children to play in.

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