One-hundred years of the national Finnish heroine.

Tove Jansson. Painter, illustrator, caricaturist, author, creator of the world-wide beloved Moomin characters. The exhibition at Ateneum celebrates one-hundred years of the national Finnish heroine, and attempts to offer a meaningful sample of a career so monumental that it continues to influence people around the world today.

Hello! Some background about yourself, please?
My name is Sointu Fritze, and I am the Chief Curator of Ateneum Museum. For the Tove Jansson exhibition I have been the project leader but not the curator, because for that we have the real Tove expert, PhD Tuula Karjalainen. My job was to coordinate team operations (we have many teams performing different tasks) and generally to make sure everything ran smoothly. Art runs in my family, as my parents were collectors. My father was also a gallerist and had a framing shop. I remember when I was ten, or even younger, going on gallery rounds and seeing so much art… It’s been part of my life always. Then I studied art history, aesthetics, languages. But art history was my main subject, at the Helsinki University. I have been here at Ateneum for three years, before that at the Taidemuseo in Tennispalatsi for twelve, before that seven years at the Kunsthalle Helsinki, and before that at the Helsinki Festival. And like many of us working now in Ateneum I also started as an exhibition guide here at this very museum, in the beginning of the eighties.

So Finland celebrates 100 years of Tove Jansson.
Yes, it does! And not only Finland, many other peoples around the world.

In your opinion, what does the oeuvre of Tove Jansson mean for Finns?
In fact, at the beginning of her career and for a long time, she was not properly appreciated in her own country. As she came from the Swedish-speaking minority and Swedish was her language, the Finnish-speaking majority did not have much access to her work. She was already well-known in those circles, in England and in other European countries before the mass of the Finnish public finally “discovered” her many years later. For instance, her comics were published first in forty other countries, and in Finland only in the 60s, so there was quite a gap.

But today everyone loves her, she means so much to Finns. Of course the success of the Moomins plays a big part, as they are nowadays such an important part of the Finland brand (welcoming tourists at the airport gates, being ambassadors around the world) but I think nowadays there is not a single Finn who doesn’t know who Tove Jansson is. She is very widely appreciated and cherished, for many reasons. She didn’t have a specific group she was targeting with her writing, drawing or painting, she just had to do it. And this became plainly evident when we were planning this exhibition. A fundamental step for us is to establish, before anything else, an audience strategy. We always start from “who is our target group?”

With Tove we just had to give up. There isn’t a group who couldn’t possibly be interested, and you can see it just by looking at the diversity of the people who come: children, men, women, of all ages, each and every one coming to celebrate their own Tove Jansson. It can be her literature, her theater plays, her paintings, the Moomins, her bold public stance at a time when homosexuality was criminalized… She inspired so many people in so many different ways.

She was also very brave.
Absolutely. Considering, for example, her comics and satirical drawings for the Garm magazine, which she did in the thirties and during the war: nobody at the time knew what the outcome would be! Who would win, and what would happen to Finland afterwards? And she was caricaturing Hitler and Stalin openly in those times, a young woman, under her own name… She had guts.

Her body of work spans decades, while she moved across different media, involving so many different audiences. Do you think the exhibition has managed to properly encapsulate such tremendous output?
We think so, we are quite happy. We believe we are offering the audience the Total Tove Experience (she laughs). Of course there are always things that have to be left out; Tuula says she thinks Tove is actually a pseudonym, and behind it are about eight or nine different artists who have all made a really fantastic career. So we have really tried to include the most important and representative areas of her body of work.

And with Tove you can’t possibly separate art and life; her motto “work and love, and work first but love very close” exemplifies that everything she has done is very much tied to her own environment, to the people she loved, those who were meaningful for her. And no matter the media (books, paintings, children’s stories, plays) the same stories, archetypes, and attitude towards life come to greet you. She had this kind of extended family; the idea of an open-doors ongoing party to which everybody is invited. A party where everybody is welcome and there are no unwanted guests. I think it’s a very wonderful conception of how to exist in the world.

Was it difficult to coordinate an exhibition with so many sources?
Quite difficult. Just ask Minna Erwe, our registrar responsible for the logistics and for all the long requests… We have nearly one-hundred private generous lenders, which is a lot. Many of the works provided are previously unseen, and exclusively new for the public. We were lucky to have here, for one year, a person (Maria Laurent, through a grant from the Swedish Cultural Foundation) whose mission was to collect information, track the artworks, reach many contacts and obtain pieces that nobody had known about before. Tove was very active as a painter in the thirties and forties and specially during the wartime, when the value of money was vague and relative. She was very productive then and sold a lot. Those artworks quietly existed in private collectors’ homes and were never shown publicly. So now we have an extensive databank, which is a very valuable asset.

An important aspect to consider in the context of this exhibition is that, above all, Tove wished to be known first and foremost as a painter. It was a big dream of hers since a very young age, and we very much want to emphasize that. There’s also a certain bitter-sweet dichotomy in the fact that she was so multi-talented that she never got to fully focus solely on painting. What works would we be enjoying today? But on the other hand we must be glad she didn’t, because then we would not have the amazing, rich creations that have influenced so many people around the world.

Is it possible there are some works out there which no-one knows about?
It always is. Masterpieces could be out there and even their owners don’t know it’s a Tove Jansson. There’s always mysteries, it’s impossible to know all works by a single artist. When we opened, we got approached by private owners saying “we’ve got this and this by Tove, why didn’t you ask us for them to be exhibited?”. Probably because we didn’t know that that particular work even existed…

Any interesting stories about moving the material?
Many stories. Some of them I can’t talk about but some I can (laughs). Tracking and moving art is like assembling an enormous puzzle. It looks very chaotic and at some point we’ve got the feeling that we would never get it ready by opening time! But all was well. The plans for the big murals were really exciting.

She was a very talented monumental painter. It’s frankly amazing how she could alternate between mastery of the micro-fine line in her drawings and miniatures, and then command the broad designs and strokes of a five-meter fresco… Her masterpiece in the field of monumental painting is Party in the City and Party in the Countryside, made for the Helsinki City Hall in 1947. The painting was made on concrete slabs and attached to the wall, and in order to get it we had to take down each part individually, move them here, and then re-assemble everything. They weigh over a thousand kilos and nobody was fully certain whether it was going to work. But we had our best technicians and conservators, and the best logistic companies in Finland to do the job. It was kind of an adventure for all involved, very exciting and very scary. Now the murals are a highlight of the exhibition.

Did you film that? You should make a documentary…
We did film it, and we’re thinking about it.

Was there anything that you definitely wanted to feature, but couldn’t get?
There was one painting we never found, and another important painting located in the USA that we couldn’t manage to obtain. But this is eclipsed by the massive support most lenders have shown. They have been so generous and enthusiastic of the exhibition, almost everything we wanted is here. Of course some of the monumental pieces are painted directly on walls and cannot be moved (the one at Aurora hospital, for example), but we have detailed sketches of those works anyway.

The management of the space must have been very challenging, with so many works to display.
Indeed. We have a marvelous exhibition architect, Marjaana Kinnermä; we have collaborated with her many times. She worked along with the curator and made a hyper-detailed floor plan for the exhibition. But when we began to actually hang the works and distribute them around, we could see not all of the ideas that looked good on paper translated well into real space, so we had to re-think some of them.

Another time-consuming aspect of the exhibition was the design and distribution of light. Some walls, for example, exhibit works on paper next to oil paintings. Oil can tolerate a lot of light, but works on paper will not withstand the same amount of lux, they must be under a dimmer source. All of this was an interesting challenge for our lighting masters.

How long did it take for the whole project, considering it’s a 100-years retrospective, to come together?
It began about three years ago. And it has been an incredibly interesting project because the expert, Tuula Karjalainen, was writing a new biography on Tove (the book came out last autumn) and working on the exhibition at the same time; they came hand in hand. The rights have been bought by Penguin, and that means it’s going to be released around the world in English very soon. It’s already available in Swedish and will also be translated into Estonian, Norwegian, German, and in Japanese.

It seems the Japanese were eager to embrace Tove.
They have a strong moral sense. Order, honor, loyalty, truth, friendship (and their lacking) are very important in their culture. Tove’s work probably resonated so well with them because her stories and the characters therein somehow embody all these elements. I am a fan of (Hayao) Miyazaki, and I think many similarities can be found between the consistent philosophy of his movies and the Moomin’s universe. There’s always the threat to the established order, loneliness, sadness, selfishness, but somehow there’s always this saving kindness, and (mostly) happy, positive endings. Life can be scary, but the human spirit will prevail in the end, they seem to say.

Tove seems to be big in Asia too.
Yes. The Tove boom began in Japan, partly because of the Moomin anime, but her literature is well known there too. But now the next boom is starting in China, she’s becoming more and more popular there, and in South Korea as well.

It’s interesting and amusing how the Moomin characters, sometimes interchangeably, express Tove’s own character or that of people who were interesting or influential for her.
It’s fascinating. Her alter-ego can switch from Little-My to the Moomintroll, then perhaps to Moominpappa… Tove managed to embody such contradicting sides. I have spoken with several people who knew her in person, and they confirmed this. Actress Birgitta Ulfsson, who was performing here at the opening, spoke extensively about how Tove handled so many opposing aspects of her personality. She was strong, both physically and mentally, but she looked so small and weak. She spoke with a very, very tiny voice, which would make her seem shy and vulnerable at first sight. But her actions were always bold and decisive. She was also a very kind person (she would personally answer by hand the thousands of letters she received from children who wrote to her). She was also adamant on certain issues, her pacifism, her radical thinking… How could she balance all of it? She was so many people at the same time, and we can clearly see this in the multi-layered nature of her work.

Her self-contained philosophy is most evident in the world of the Moomins, a sense of inner balance that’s always restored at the end. Where do you think this comes from, where did she get this?
Tuula can probably give a better answer, but I’d say maybe from her family dynamics. When she was young, certain contradictions ruled her life. There was a strong mother, the dearest person in Tove’s life. And then her father was quite a restless soul, so she had a very peculiar relationship with him, a love-and-hate thing. Their values were so also diametrically opposed: he very conservative, she a radical. The tension between a strong Tove and a strong father can indeed be felt in the books and the paintings.

And of course there’s the social and historical context. Destruction, war. A threat to the balance of the known world. What war did to her, to her friends, to creative circles, to Finland, Europe, and to the world. The first Moomin books were written during wartime and they reflect quite clearly the coming destruction (the flood, the falling comet), all very much a transforming, terrifying experience. And, as we said, order is restored and the light shines again. But of course things will not necessarily be the same, change affects everything. Then in the fifties she met Tuulikki Pietilä, the artist who was to become her lifelong companion, lover, and partner. It was through Tuulikki’s conviction that Tove was able to let go. Tuulikki made her realize that by accepting the uncertainties of life she could reach inner peace, and freedom. She finally came to say “everything is unstable, and that makes me feel very comfortable”.

Tuulikki was fundamental in Tove’s life. But she was also an accomplished artist in her own right. How does the exhibition accommodate this?
Tuulikki is present in Tove’s exhibition in many ways. Tuulikki’s 1975 portrait by Tove before she let go of painting to focus on writing and on the world of the Moomins. Also in the 3D installations, the wonderful tableaux with all the figures and the Moomin stories (we display about twenty of them). Those they built together, but it was Tuulikki —sister of a renown architect— who was the driving force. We also have her films, that we are screening, and which document the trips they took together to the island and to Europe. She was such an integral part of Tove’s life, supporting her in every way. She was strong, and very practical. She would take care of Tove’s day-to-day needs, big and small, sometimes even making sure that Tove would remember to eat!

Tuulikki’s own hundredth anniversary will be in 2017 and we are already planning a big exhibition. We have available most of her work here, which we are now cataloging and sorting out. It’s going to be great too.

Tuulikki left us in 2010. Were they still together when Tove passed away?
Always. They had their separate apartments in the same house, but there was a corridor in the attic so they could see each other when they needed to.

Those summers in the Klovharu island must have been epic.
Absolutely. From early May until the beginning of autumn they would flee to their small island in the gulf of Finland, their little paradise. Which must have been so demanding as well, as there was no place to hide from each other (laughs). They must have gotten along so well. They were both amazingly active there, not only working, but also taking care of their daily needs. I think words like laziness or idleness had no meaning in that place, as their days were filled with little and big things they had to accomplish just to survive. A different notion of time and space. WORK AND LOVE, Tove’s ex-libris motto is what they did on the island. They worked and they loved.

This formidable exhibition can be enjoyed at Ateneum Museum from March 14th to September 9th, 2014. You can also visit the special website (in Finnish, Swedish, English) for a calendar of activities around the world regarding Tove’s anniversary.