anna brones

writer + artist + producer

Tove Jansson

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“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Beloved Tove Jansson. A woman who wore flower crowns and plunged into the sea. A creative woman who gave us the gift of stories through the world of Moomin. A woman of wisdom and insight.

Jansson was born into a creative family, her mother an illustrator (she designed Finnish postage stamps for over three decades) and her father a sculptor. She learned to draw almost before she could walk, and later she would attend art school in both Stockholm and Paris. Her world was one built of curiosity, and navigating her way through it by way of expression–she wrote, she drew, she painted, she thought. As was noted in The New Yorker, “home was continuous with studio, at night filled with music and the couple’s creative friends. While freedom exists in principle, when you grow up in such a setting, and one of your family pets is a monkey named Poppolino, chances are you will become an artist yourself. In an emergency, mother asked if daughter could fill in on an illustration job, and daughter obliged.”

Winters were spent in the art studio and summers on an island. If you have read any of Jansson’s work, you know the power an island holds—they were woven into her work and personal life. As is noted on the website devoted to her work, islands were “hives of adventure and the setting for rebirth and change – places where you can build your own world.” Symbols of freedom, she and her partner (and fellow artist) Tuulikki Pietilä found their own: Klovharu in the Finnish archipelago, where the two women built a small house where they enjoyed over 30 summer seasons together.

Sometimes deliberate people look for their island and conquer it, and sometimes the dream of the island can be a passive symbol for what is one step beyond reach. The island—at last, privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences. 

Sheltered and isolated by the water that is at the same time an open possibility.

A possibility one never considers.

From Jansson’s essay “The Island

Capturing the Nordic landscape and spirit, at the heart of Jansson’s work, there is a world of tension and contrasts, whether it’s contentment versus restlessness, safety versus security, the fear yet exhilaration of the unknown versus the comfort yet mundanity of home. As Tuula Karjalainen wrote in Tove Jansson: Work and Love, excerpted in The Independent:

The inhabitants of Moominvalley often stray from their valley and are subject to storms and disasters on the raging sea. Tove loved the sea in its various manifestations. She described it in her life, in her painting, in the Moomin books and also in her other writing. The Moomins live in these two contrasting worlds: on the one hand, a luxuriant, marine landscape, with brooks, flowers, houses with tiled stoves; and on the other, the unpredictable sea with its barren islands, archipelagos, caves, mussels, sea creatures and boats. In the tension between these worlds, the Moomin family settles down.

That made Jansson’s work layered, which appealed to both children and adults. Karjalainen continues, “even in these early works, it is plain that Tove’s narrative operates on several levels. It is a quality that lies at the basis of all the Moomin books and makes them quite unique in children’s literature. It was also the case that some bewildered publishers were unable to conceive of books that might be suitable for both children and adults.”

Of course, Moomin wasn’t Jansson’s only world. She created an impressive body of artwork, and penned stories specifically for adults, like The Summer Book and Traveling Light. 

In researching Jansson, I came across some old film interviews with her. In one (fyi it’s in Swedish, if you decide to try to watch), she spoke of the impetus for The Summer Book, a book that I read at the beginning of every summer. She describes hitting a creative wall, that she couldn’t work or write, and she went to her mother. Her mother challenged her to write about a very old person and a very young person.

The idea reignited a desire to sit down and write.

This entire project of documenting women has been about wisdom. The wisdom we seek, the wisdom we carry, the wisdom to challenge, the wisdom to ask. In this interview, I found it so touching that the idea for one of Jansson’s most seminal books, the one that feels like her truest story, was one that was sparked by the wisdom of an important woman so close to her.

There is so much to give, so much to find, so much to enjoy, so much to seek. There is wisdom in tension, in layers, in curiosity, in the novel and in the mundane. For that, I find Jansson’s words so powerful.

Stay curious.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

February 12, 2020 at 11:54

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