'She was a very brave person in a world where women didn’t have much independence and certainly no equality in any shape or form,' Sophia Jansson says.
'She had her own moral and ethical code and a clear idea about what was right and wrong. She approached people with an open mind, with no hint of prejudice. That is something that is seen surprisingly rarely today.'
She gives us a concrete example of Tove’s open-mindedness: at the beginning of summer, when Tove moved to her island in the Finnish archipelago – as she did every summer from the 1920s up to the time she started to fear the sea as an elderly lady – she would let out her artist studio apartment in the centre of Helsinki to people who had nowhere to live.
Of course, her love story with her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä was another example of her life free of prejudice. The two women lived in a society where same-sex relationships were illegal.
'Tove also had relationships with men. For her, it was the person she fell in love with that was important, not their gender,' Sophia says.
Tove also decided early on that she didn’t want any children.
'She didn’t want to bring children into a world of war, where men were sent to the Front to fight.'
An artist with a sharp tongue
I ask Sophia to describe her aunt in a few words. The first description she comes up with is 'a good sense of humour'.
'Tove’s sense of humour was of the slightly dry, British kind. For her, humour was a tool to handle the difficulties life threw at her.'
Then she chooses some adjectives: 'dainty, agile and elfin'. Tove was a petite woman, about 160 cm tall, yet despite her diminutive stature, she knew how to control any situation and make the biggest of men fear her.
'Tove was a featherweight but she was smart and witty. With her sharp tongue, she was able to express herself very accurately. After all, language is a strong tool, and those who have a good command of it can achieve anything.'
Tove always travelled to see something new. Everybody is curious in some way, and in Tove’s case, curiosity very much led her to want to see and experience more of the world.
Sophia’s last description of her aunt is 'artistically gifted'. This is our cue to switch to talking about Tove the artist, the identity Tove fundamentally felt to be her real self. Sophia tells us how Tove was adamant about completely dedicating herself to creating art.
'Her art supported her financially from the age of 15.'
So, was art work for her?
'That’s exactly what it was, work.'
She became a drawer, an illustrator and a writer whose books have been translated into 49 languages. However, she felt she was – and wanted to be – first a foremost a painter.
According to Sophia, the popularity of the Moomin books was very welcome to Tove at the beginning. Fame meant income. In time the level of interest became a burden, and Tove wanted to distance herself from the Moomins. A promising career as a painter and an artist was overtaken by the Moomins, but in her later years Tove also wrote short stories and novels for adults.
'In an interview she said that returning to Moomin Valley felt odd after the death of both her mother and father. It was a good time to start writing other kinds of books.'
Sophia believes universal stories to be the secret behind the Moomins’ popularity, which has lasted for nearly 70 years, yet there are other reasons:
'It was typical of Tove to create everything with great accuracy, whether she was working on a painting composition or the Moomin character gallery. Even things left out of the story or empty spaces on a canvas have meaning.. I’m sure these things are important to many people. They have given her audience the space to imagine more about the stories and works of art – it’s given them an opportunity to find themselves.'
- Tove Jansson’s centennial exhibition in Ateneum, Helsinki, from 14 March to 7 September 2014.
- Moomin World in Naantali opens for the summer on 7 June – it’s easy to get to Naantali from Turku Airport, the official Moomin Airport!
- At Helsinki Airport’s Moomin Shop you can find the familiar Moomin friends and take them home with you. GATES 26-27.
Text: Tiia Soininen
Photos: Moomin Characters