Tove Jansson black cat atelier

The artist who composes her life

  1. 01Every Canvas is a Self-portrait
  2. 02Fast tempo and broad expression
  3. 03Building inside and outside
01

Every Canvas is a Self-portrait


‘Every still-life, every landscape, every canvas is a self-portrait!!’ Tove Jansson writes. Artists always depict themselves and their time; Tove Jansson is convinced that painting is always about taking a personal risk.

During her art studies in Helsinki and Paris in the 1930s, Tove completes many self-portraits, from charcoal sketches to larger works in oil, adopting the French Colourist and Impressionist styles. Her first self-portrait, a drawing, is included in the exhibition Humoristerna (The Humourists) at Salon Strindberg in 1933. She depicts herself in oil in the background of her own paintings.

Tove Jansson self portrait 1940

Smoking girl (Self-portrait, Rökande flicka), Tove Jansson 1940.

Tove Jansson does not always enjoy being a student; she takes breaks, enrolls in other colleges, and, along with her peers, is critical of the rigid and hierarchical teaching styles she encounters. However, she learns and makes valuable contacts.

One of her closest friends is the artist Sam Vanni (Samuel Besprosvanni), who becomes her mentor and lover. She draws him in charcoal, and in return, he paints her in oils.

No two Tove Jansson self-portraits are alike. She experiments with different techniques and with her identity and role as an artist and a woman. In the early 1940s, she paints a picture of herself gazing out from the canvas to the viewer. She is wearing a leather cap and a fur coat in what seems an explicit reference to the portraits of Rembrandt. It is as if she is presenting herself as a self-assured woman engaged in a dialogue with the master of fine art, ready and able to meet the demands of her craft. At the same time, she is critical of the work, describing her facial expression as derisive and rigid.

Portrait Tove Jansson Sam Vanni 1940

Tove Jansson portrayed by Sam Vanni, 1940.

Tove Jansson self portrait 1942

Lynx boa (self-portrait), Tove Jansson 1942.

Tove Jansson had already established herself in the Helsinki fine art scene, as well as gaining fame as an illustrator and storyteller, when she titles a new self-portrait ‘The Beginner’. This is her first abstract work and a bold new departure. She begins to sign her paintings with her last name, instead of the more familiar ‘Tove’. She is willing to be humble in her approach to art and ready to start again from scratch.

The 1960s are a creative period for Tove Jansson the artist, but they are followed by a long pause in painting, where her writing and illustration – and the whole enterprise of the Moomins – takes precedence. However, in the mid-1970s, while accompanying Tuulikki Pietilä on an artist’s residence in Paris, she is surprised to find that the urge to paint has returned. She takes up her brushes and captures herself in an inquisitive oil portrait. Her strokes are broad and enjoyable; she is set free to looks at herself with detachment.

Tove Jansson self portrait 1975
Tove Jansson self portrait (1975)

The painting from these days by the Seine was Tove Jansson’s last self-portrait; it was included in her last exhibition in 1975. In this way, she comes full circle from her earliest sketches.

Tove Jansson’s self-portraits reflect the development of her identity, her susceptibility to change, and her view of herself as an artist.

‘Every still-life, every landscape, every canvas is a self-portrait!!’ Tove Jansson writes. Artists always depict themselves and their time; Tove Jansson is convinced that painting is always about taking a personal risk.

During her art studies in Helsinki and Paris in the 1930s, Tove completes many self-portraits, from charcoal sketches to larger works in oil, adopting the French Colourist and Impressionist styles. Her first self-portrait, a drawing, is included in the exhibition Humoristerna (The Humourists) at Salon Strindberg in 1933. She depicts herself in oil in the background of her own paintings.

Tove Jansson does not always enjoy being a student; she takes breaks, enrols in other colleges, and, along with her peers, is critical of the rigid and hierarchical teaching styles she encounters. However, she learns and makes valuable contacts. 

One of her closest friends is the artist Sam Vanni (Samuel Besprosvanni), who becomes her mentor and lover. She draws him in charcoal, and in return, he paints her in oils.

No two Tove Jansson self-portraits are alike. She experiments with different techniques and with her identity and role as an artist and a woman. In the early 1940s she paints a picture of herself gazing out from the canvas to the viewer. She is wearing a leather cap and a fur coat in what seems an explicit reference to the portraits of Rembrandt. It is as if she is presenting herself as a self-assured woman engaged in a dialogue with the master of fine art, ready and able to meet the demands of her craft. At the same time, she is critical of the work, describing her facial expression as derisive and rigid.

Tove Jansson had already established herself in the Helsinki fine art scene, as well as gaining fame as an illustrator and storyteller, when she titles a new self-portrait ‘The Beginner’. This is her first abstract work and a bold new departure. She begins to sign her paintings with her last name, instead of the more familiar ‘Tove’. She is willing to be humble in her approach to art and ready to start again from scratch.

The 1960s are a creative period for Tove Jansson the artist, but they are followed by a long pause in painting, where her writing and illustration – and the whole enterprise of the Moomins – takes precedence. However, in the mid-1970s, while accompanying Tuulikki Pietilä on an artist’s residence in Paris, she is surprised to find that the urge to paint has returned. She takes up her brushes and captures herself in an inquisitive oil portrait. Her strokes are broad and enjoyable; she is set free to looks at herself with detachment.

The painting from these days by the Seine was Tove Jansson’s last self-portrait; it was included in her last exhibition in 1975. In this way, she comes full circle from her earliest sketches.

Tove Jansson’s self-portraits reflect the development of her identity, her susceptibility to change, and her view of herself as an artist.

Tove Jansson fresco 1949
02

Fast tempo and broad expression


For Tove Jansson, the word ‘create’ feels awkward. She prefers to use the word ‘work’ for her activities. Artistry can only show itself in practice; one must work constantly, and one must work conscientiously.

Tove Jansson is endlessly productive, whether she is preparing for a project, re-working earlier editions of her books, or developing the characters she has created.

One of Tove Jansson’s idols is the Renaissance artist Cennino Cennini, whose book Il libro dell’arte becomes a constant and well-thumbed reference. In her notebooks, she collects facts and ideas about everything from instructions for dyeing leather to techniques for creating stained glass or plans for party menus. Despite her respect for traditional methods and resistance to fleeting ‘–isms’, she is always willing to try new modes of expression.

Tove Jansson Marsnatt

Night in March (Marsnatt), Tove Jansson, date unknown

In her lifetime, within Finland’s art circles, Tove Jansson often feels her commercial work is belittled. Her packaging designs, fabric prints and even her murals commissioned for public buildings in Finland are less valued than sculptures and paintings.

In 1949 Tove is commissioned to paint a fairytale scene al secco on a kindergarten wall in the city of Kotka. She includes trolls and humans in the painting, inserts coloured stones and glitter, and paints everything over with gold. ‘I’m sure it’ll make the Artists’ Guild rear up and foam at the mouth’, she writes.

Tove Jansson has no inclination to be an actor, but she feels at home in the world of theatre. She prefers the company of theatre folk to that of artists, and is attracted by performances and all the possibilities theatre has to offer.

For a versatile artist such as Tove Jansson, theatre is a perfect environment. When inspired by a production, she is happy to paint backdrops, design costumes, and even write song lyrics. In the last verse of a Moomin song she writes that a real rose pales in comparison to a rose that is hand-painted on scenery; theatre is a more thrilling version of reality.

Tove Jansson Hemelun Theatre sketch

The Hemulen’s Aunt

Tove Jansson’s fascination for theatre is evident in the innovative design of The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Its pages resemble a changing theatre set, with the reader invited to peek through holes cut out of each page and discover what happens next. Tove Jansson drew from a wide array of influences to achieve the desired effect; the dark tree trunks of the opening page seem to flow from the works of the Swedish fantasy artist John Bauer; the element of surprise from nineteenth-century picture books; and the expressive colours and paper cut-outs from the master colourist himself, Matisse.

The result is graphic and undeniably poetic; it combines the best of all worlds. The book receives enthusiastic reviews, and Tove Jansson is awarded the prestigious Nils Holgersson Plaque.

Throughout the 1950s, Tove Jansson works at an extremely fast tempo, expressing herself in many different mediums. In the single year of 1952, she publishes The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, designs the scenery and costumes for a fairy-tale ballet at the Finnish National Opera, drafts many long-form Moomin cartoons, paints a large mural, and participates in an exhibition, contributing several oil paintings.

To keep herself on the right track, she tries to focus on one thing at a time. Moreover, she thoroughly enjoys every moment filled with work.

For Tove Jansson, the word ‘create’ feels awkward. She prefers to use the word ‘work’ for her activities. Artistry can only show itself in practice; one must work constantly, and one must work conscientiously.

Tove Jansson is endlessly productive, whether she is preparing for a project, re-working earlier editions of her books, or developing the characters she has created.

One of Tove Jansson’s idols is the Renaissance artist Cennino Cennini, whose book Il libro dell’arte becomes a constant and well-thumbed reference. In her notebooks, she collects facts and ideas about everything from instructions for dyeing leather to techniques for creating stained glass or plans for party menus. Despite her respect for traditional methods and resistance to fleeting ‘–isms’, she is always willing to try new modes of expression.

In her lifetime, within Finland’s art circles, Tove Jansson often feels her commercial work is belittled. Her packaging designs, fabric prints and even her murals commissioned for public buildings in Finland are less valued than sculptures and paintings. 

In 1949 Tove is commissioned to paint a fairytale scene al secco on a kindergarten wall in the city of Kotka. She includes trolls and humans in the painting, inserts coloured stones and glitter, and paints everything over with gold. ‘I’m sure it’ll make the Artists’ Guild rear up and foam at the mouth’, she writes.

Tove Jansson has no inclination to be an actor, but she feels at home in the world of theatre. She prefers the company of theatre folk to that of artists, and is attracted by performances and all the possibilities theatre has to offer.

For a versatile artist such as Tove Jansson, theatre is a perfect environment. When inspired by a production, she is happy to paint backdrops, design costumes, and even write song lyrics. In the last verse of a Moomin song she writes that a real rose pales in comparison to a rose that is hand-painted on scenery; theatre is a more thrilling version of reality.

Tove Jansson’s fascination for theatre is evident in the innovative design of The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Its pages resemble a changing theatre set, with the reader invited to peek through holes cut out of each page and discover what happens next. Tove Jansson drew from a wide array of influences to achieve the desired effect; the dark tree trunks of the opening page seem to flow from the works of the Swedish fantasy artist John Bauer; the element of surprise from nineteenth-century picture books; and the expressive colours and paper cut-outs from the master colourist himself, Matisse.  

The result is graphic and undeniably poetic; it combines the best of all worlds. The book receives enthusiastic reviews, and Tove Jansson is awarded the prestigious Nils Holgersson Plaque.

Throughout the 1950s, Tove Jansson works at an extremely fast tempo, expressing herself in many different mediums. In the single year of 1952, she publishes The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, designs the scenery and costumes for a fairy-tale ballet at the Finnish National Opera, drafts many long-form Moomin cartoons, paints a large mural, and participates in an exhibition, contributing several oil paintings. 

To keep herself on the right track, she tries to focus on one thing at a time. Moreover, she thoroughly enjoys every moment filled with work.

Tove Jansson Lars Jansson 1947
03

Building inside and outside


Tove Jansson is attracted by the speed of sawing, nailing, and digging: ‘Maybe because – unlike my painting – it always turns out as one had imagined, a quicker and more tangible result’.

When she wants to escape the unhappiness and disappointments of life, Tove Jansson works with practical things. Building wooden cabins in the archipelago or restoring a model boat made of iron are welcome pastimes. She describes the model boat, a small lightship, in loving detail, noting the tiniest cogwheel, hatch, and whistle.

When she is unhappy in love and has misgivings, she travels to Pellinge with her brother Lars Jansson and builds a house on an island.

Tove Jansson Pellinge island photo

Tove Jansson chops wood in the 1940s photographed by her brother Per Olov Jansson

‘I build like a thing possessed to wear myself out and avoid dreaming, avoid thinking. So I’m building two houses: an external one, and an internal one of calm and indifference’ (Letters from Tove).

Tove Jansson’s nesting instinct and compulsion to create order from the chaos around her are sometimes a nuisance. In her short story ‘The Squirrel’, the narrator, a middle-aged woman, sets out to organise her books into alphabetic order but then decides it would be better to re-arrange them according to her tastes and liking. The project is doomed to fail because she does not know which books she likes best. What a defeat!

Tove Jansson Pellinge Alf Lidman

Tove Jansson in Pellinki photographed by Alf Lidman.

Her house-building projects and dreams of islands keep recurring. One moment, Tove Jansson dreams about founding an artists’ colony in Morocco with Atos Wirtanen; the next, she dreams about moving to a South Sea island with her brother.


”…So I’m building two houses: an external one, and an internal one of calm and indifference…”


Tove Jansson cherishes a dream about moving to an island of her own, an island with a lighthouse. In Moominpappa at Sea, she has the Moomin family sail off to a rocky island with a lighthouse; in this way, she finally occupies the island of her dreams. Anything can happen when dreams and action go hand in hand.

Tove Jansson is attracted by the speed of sawing, nailing, and digging: ‘Maybe because – unlike my painting – it always turns out as one had imagined, a quicker and more tangible result’.

When she wants to escape the unhappiness and disappointments of life, Tove Jansson works with practical things. Building wooden cabins in the archipelago or restoring a model boat made of iron are welcome pastimes. She describes the model boat, a small lightship, in loving detail, noting the tiniest cogwheel, hatch, and whistle.

When she is unhappy in love and has misgivings, she travels to Pellinge with her brother Lars Jansson and builds a house on an island. ‘I build like a thing possessed to wear myself out and avoid dreaming, avoid thinking. So I’m building two houses: an external one, and an internal one of calm and indifference’ (Letters from Tove).

Tove Jansson’s nesting instinct and compulsion to create order from the chaos around her are sometimes a nuisance. In her short story ‘The Squirrel’, the narrator, a middle-aged woman, sets out to organise her books into alphabetic order but then decides it would be better to re-arrange them according to her tastes and liking. The project is doomed to fail because she does not know which books she likes best. What a defeat!

Her house-building projects and dreams of islands keep recurring. One moment, Tove Jansson dreams about founding an artists’ colony in Morocco with Atos Wirtanen; the next, she dreams about moving to a South Sea island with her brother.

Tove Jansson cherishes a dream about moving to an island of her own, an island with a lighthouse. In Moominpappa at Sea, she has the Moomin family sail off to a rocky island with a lighthouse; in this way, she finally occupies the island of her dreams. Anything can happen when dreams and action go hand in hand.


”…So I’m building two houses: an external one, and an internal one of calm and indifference…”


Sources & Rights

Text

Hanna Ylöstalo, co-edited by Natania Jansz

Sources

Jansson, Tove. The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1952), translated into English in 1953 by Silvester Mazzarella, adapted by Sophie Hannah in 2001
(Fast tempo and broad expression)

Jansson, Tove. Moominpappa at Sea (1965), translated into in 1966 English by Kingsley Hart

Jansson, Tove. The Listener (1972), translated into English in 2014 by Thomas Teal
(Building inside and outside: ‘The Squirrel’)

Karjalainen, Tuula. Tove Jansson. Work and Love (2014), translated into English by David McDuff
(Chapter 2: Youth and War, Every canvas is a self-portrait: ‘At the Artists’ Residence in Paris’ p. 251–252)

Karjalainen, Tuula. ‘Tove Jansson och passionen till måleriet’ in SLS Historiska och litteraturhistoriska studier 89 (2014)

Westin, Boel. Tove Jansson. Life, Art, Words (2014), translated into English by Silvester Mazzarella
(Every canvas is a self-portrait: ‘Self-portraits’, p. 27–30 and ‘Self-portraits and One-Woman Shows’ p. 145–147, Fast tempo and broad expression: ‘Cennini’ p. 23, Chapter 10 ‘The Wild 1950s’ and Letters to Eva Konikoff 19 February 1949 quoted in Chapter 9 ‘Trolls and Humans’)

Eds. Westin, Boel & Svensson Helen. Letters from Tove (2019), translated into English by Sarah Death (Every canvas is a self-portrait: Letters to Eva Konikoff 4 November 1941, Building inside and outside: A letter to Eva Konikoff about a model boat 29 April 1942, about work 17 June 1942, and about houses 10 August 1947)

Åfeldt, Gunvor. ‘Skapa’ är ett genant ord säger aktuella Tove Jansson’, undated press cutting from Tove Jansson’s studio
(Fast tempo and broad expression)

Image rights

01 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

02 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

03 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

04 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

05 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

06 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

07 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

08 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

09 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy

10 Per Olov Jansson.
Copyright Moomin Characters Oy


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