Tove Jansson writing atelier

The attuned author

  1. 01 I embrace you in great friendship
  2. 02The abstract 1960s
  3. 03The meaning of words became so important to me
01

I embrace you in great friendship


Hand-written letters on white, unruled sheets of paper; Tove Jansson’s private letters are full of endearments, reflection, and subtle humour. She is a receptive author and an attuned friend.

Tove Jansson usually uses black India ink to write her letters. She illustrates some of her letters, frequently with sketches of herself in new situations.

In her short story “The Listener”, Tove Jansson writes about the elderly Aunt Gerda, a sympathetic listener and an excellent correspondent. For much of her life she has replied dutifully and kindly to the many letters she receives, offering advice where needed. But Aunt Gerda can no longer be relied on to keep the secrets confided in her. Instead she reclaims the space to reminisce and review her life. She listens to her inner voice and experiences a new feeling of power.

Tove Jansson handwritten letter

A letter by Tove Jansson to her longtime friend Eva Konikoff from October 26, 1945, written in Swedish. The illustrations depict Tove’s studio on Ullanlinnankatu 1 in Helsinki.

Behind Aunt Gerda’s window, however, the world keeps revolving and evolving, and Aunt Gerda is losing her grasp. Life has become a balancing act between self-interest and an interest in the well-being of others.

One of Tove Jansson’s most important correspondents is her friend Eva Konikoff, a gifted photographer of Russian-Jewish heritage who emigrates to the US just before the onset of the Second World War. Tove pours her heart out to Eva throughout the dark years of war, despite knowing that many of her letters will be censored or returned to sender. The act of confiding, openly and whole-heartedly, to another is a comfort to Tove.

‘You know, Eva, I seem able to talk to you about all my great joys, all my agonies, everything going on in my head – there’s no one else I can talk to as I do to you. I’m not putting a burden on you – am I? I think, I know, that the way you always listen to whatever I tell you is like the embrace of a friend’ (Letters from Tove).

A deep sorrow at their separation is evident in these letters. At the same time, both are busy with their careers, forging new relationships and with their intellectual and spiritual development. Tove Jansson uses the letters to reflect upon her needs, her unfulfilled dreams of recognition as an artist, her disappointments and hopes for love. She also updates Eva on the latest news of their mutual friends and expresses her delight at hearing about ordinary, everyday matters. In one of her letters, she tells Eva about a foolish impulse to blow her latest earnings on a blue fox-fur cape. Eva understands.

Eva Konikoff 1941

Portrait of her friend Eva Konikoff by Tove Jansson, 1941

From Eva Konikoff, Tove Jansson gains new and stimulating ideas from America. Parcels arrive that will lighten the gloom of austerity with unimaginable treats such as plums, face cream or longed for art materials. The oil colours Eva sends her are especially welcome.


‘I think, I know, that the way you always listen to whatever I tell you is like the embrace of a friend’


 

Hand-written letters on white, unruled sheets of paper; Tove Jansson’s private letters are full of endearments, reflection, and subtle humour. She is a receptive author and an attuned friend.

Tove Jansson usually uses black India ink to write her letters. She illustrates some of her letters, frequently with sketches of herself in new situations. 

In her short story “The Listener”, Tove Jansson writes about the elderly Aunt Gerda, a sympathetic listener and an excellent correspondent. For much of her life she has replied dutifully and kindly to the many letters she receives, offering advice where needed. But Aunt Gerda can no longer be relied on to keep the secrets confided in her. Instead she reclaims the space to reminisce and review her life. She listens to her inner voice and experiences a new feeling of power.

Behind Aunt Gerda’s window, however, the world keeps revolving and evolving, and Aunt Gerda is losing her grasp. Life has become a balancing act between self-interest and an interest in the well-being of others.

One of Tove Jansson’s most important correspondents is her friend Eva Konikoff, a gifted photographer of Russian-Jewish heritage who emigrates to the US just before the onset of the Second World War. Tove pours her heart out to Eva throughout the dark years of war, despite knowing that many of her letters will be censored or returned to sender. The act of confiding, openly and whole-heartedly, to another is a comfort to Tove.

‘You know, Eva, I seem able to talk to you about all my great joys, all my agonies, everything going on in my head – there’s no one else I can talk to as I do to you. I’m not putting a burden on you – am I? I think, I know, that the way you always listen to whatever I tell you is like the embrace of a friend’ (Letters from Tove).

A deep sorrow at their separation is evident in these letters. At the same time, both are busy with their careers, forging new relationships and with their intellectual and spiritual development. Tove Jansson uses the letters to reflect upon her needs, her unfulfilled dreams of recognition as an artist, her disappointments and hopes for love. She also updates Eva on the latest news of their mutual friends and expresses her delight at hearing about ordinary, everyday matters. In one of her letters, she tells Eva about a foolish impulse to blow her latest earnings on a blue fox-fur cape. Eva understands.


I think, I know, that the way you always listen to whatever I tell you is like the embrace of a friend’


From Eva Konikoff, Tove Jansson gains new and stimulating ideas from America. Parcels arrive that will lighten the gloom of austerity with unimaginable treats such as plums, face cream or longed for art materials. The oil colours Eva sends her are especially welcome.

Tove Jansson painting 1960
02

The abstract 1960s


Tove Jansson emerges from the 1950s, a period of hectic Moomin production, feeling depleted and a little forlorn. She senses that her career and status as an artist is slipping away, eclipsed by her fame as a children’s author, with all its added demands. Moreover, storytelling, a driving force in her life, has lost its momentum. She feels uncertain about the type of stories she wishes to tell. Gradually, abstract painting takes over as her primary fascination.

But how is Tove to maintain her integrity and be exact within the abstract? She is inspired by the French and Russian painters that she encounters in a book by Nello Ponente entitled Modern painting – Contemporary trends (1960).

Tove Jansson stolen chair painting 1968

The Chair (Stolen), Tove Jansson 1968

She paints large-scale works using a riot of colour and, through a number of one-woman exhibitions, proves herself a fully-fledged painter. Gradually, her paintings develop into a more abstract direction, often maintaining a level of concreteness through the title or a motif. For example, in The Chair, she depicts a Vienna bentwood chair against an abstract background.  

Tove Jansson abstract painting 1968

Abstract Composition (Abstrakt komposition), Tove Jansson 1968

Tove is attracted by the unspoken and the implied. She takes up abstract painting a great deal later than her colleagues do, but does not become stuck like them in the movements of Informalism or Abstract Expressionism. She works within a wider array of genres and locations, and she never abandons writing or illustrations. 

Tove’s studio goes through a modernisation. Its walls are painted in a clean white – a blank canvas for a new era of work.

Tove Jansson emerges from the 1950s, a period of hectic Moomin production, feeling depleted and a little forlorn. She senses that her career and status as an artist is slipping away, eclipsed by her fame as a children’s author, with all its added demands. Moreover, storytelling, a driving force in her life, has lost its momentum. She feels uncertain about the type of stories she wishes to tell. Gradually, abstract painting takes over as her primary fascination.

But how is Tove to maintain her integrity and be exact within the abstract? She is inspired by the French and Russian painters that she encounters in a book by Nello Ponente entitled Modern painting – Contemporary trends (1960). She paints large-scale works using a riot of colour and, through a number of one-woman exhibitions, proves herself a fully-fledged painter. Gradually, her paintings develop into a more abstract direction, often maintaining a level of concreteness through the title or a motif. For example, in The Chair, she depicts a Vienna bentwood chair against an abstract background.  

Tove is attracted by the unspoken and the implied. She takes up abstract painting a great deal later than her colleagues do, but does not become stuck like them in the movements of Informalism or Abstract Expressionism. She works within a wider array of genres and locations, and she never abandons writing or illustrations. 

Tove’s studio goes through a modernisation. Its walls are painted in a clean white – a blank canvas for a new era of work.

Tove Jansson writing black white photograph
03

The meaning of words became so important to me


From stubbornly seeing herself as a painter, Tove Jansson starts to find herself, little by little, in a writer’s role. The shift is gradual. She continues to experiment with more serious themes and tones. The Moomin family moves to an island where characters are shown to be more vulnerable and self-absorbed, and the family’s absence from the valley is noticeable.

In the final Moomin books, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November, warm summer parties are a faraway memory. Tove Jansson brings her Moomin series to an end. She wants to turn her attention to writing for adults, and she does not want to do this half-heartedly.

As writing becomes increasingly important for Tove Jansson, it also becomes harder for her to satisfy her inner critic and reach her exacting standards. Writing now matters to her as much as painting. She explores different formats and literary genres, she weighs and distills sentences and phrases to convey layers of meaning, and she writes secretly for herself.

She writes very slowly: ‘I rewrote a new version; there are four, five, six versions of the same thing. (…) The meaning of words became so important to me’. (Tove Jansson in an interview around 1977)

Tove Jansson’s first two adult titles, the Sculptor’s Daughter and the short story collection The Listener, are well received, though their sales are modest compared to that of her Moomin books. Tove is paving the way for a new authorial voice, one that will offer truths about the unsettling aspects of life and relationships, but with a deceptive lightness of tone. Her art is meticulously honed. ‘Nothing must be superfluous,’ she explains, ‘one must hold the story enclosed within one’s hand’.

Tove Jansson Sent i November 1970

Cover for the last Moomin novel, Moominvalley in November, 1970.

Tove Jansson Stenåkern 1984
Tove Jansson Stenåkern (1984)

In 1971, on return from her round the world travels, Tove Jansson has a new manuscript to present to her editor and friend Åke Runnquist: ‘It’s nice to say that my next book is neither short stories nor a Moomin book for Gebers. It is called The Summer Book and features a very old woman and a very small girl together on an island. I wrote a number of sections of it while busy with The Listener, they didn’t fit together with the rest and I laid them aside for later.’

Despite this unassuming introduction, Runnquist immediately recognises that she has written a minor masterpiece. The Summer Book, with its calm, humorous and profound negotiations between young and old, would soon gain the status of Nordic, and then international, classic. 

‘Complexity – that is Tove’s trademark,’ says actress and friend Birgitta Ulfsson. ‘However, when talking about Tove, her sense of humour is her greatest quality for me. (…) Her humour is immense, it permeates everything’.

Tove Jansson writing Klovharun Peter Lindholm

Tove Jansson in her island cabin on Klovharun photographed by Peter Lindholm.

In her adult literature, Tove Jansson often writes with a piercing gaze, but behind the sharpness, there is a gentleness. It appears in the form of values, of wisdom, and beauty, and it presents itself as very fine art.

From stubbornly seeing herself as a painter, Tove Jansson starts to find herself, little by little, in a writer’s role. The shift is gradual. She continues to experiment with more serious themes and tones. The Moomin family moves to an island where characters are shown to be more vulnerable and self-absorbed, and the family’s absence from the valley is noticeable.

In the final Moomin books, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November, warm summer parties are a faraway memory. Tove Jansson brings her Moomin series to an end. She wants to turn her attention to writing for adults, and she does not want to do this half-heartedly.

As writing becomes increasingly important for Tove Jansson, it also becomes harder for her to satisfy her inner critic and reach her exacting standards. Writing now matters to her as much as painting. She explores different formats and literary genres, she weighs and distils sentences and phrases to convey layers of meaning, and she writes secretly for herself.

She writes very slowly: ‘I rewrote a new version; there are four, five, six versions of the same thing. (…) The meaning of words became so important to me’. (Tove Jansson in an interview around 1977)

Tove Jansson’s first two adult titles, the Sculptor’s Daughter and the short story collection The Listener, are well received, though their sales are modest compared to that of her Moomin books. Tove is paving the way for a new authorial voice, one that will offer truths about the unsettling aspects of life and relationships, but with a deceptive lightness of tone. Her art is meticulously honed. ‘Nothing must be superfluous,’ she explains, ‘one must hold the story enclosed within one’s hand’.

In 1971, on return from her round the world travels, Tove Jansson has a new manuscript to present to her editor and friend Åke Runnquist: ‘It’s nice to say that my next book is neither short stories nor a Moomin book for Gebers. It is called The Summer Book and features a very old woman and a very small girl together on an island. I wrote a number of sections of it while busy with The Listener, they didn’t fit together with the rest and I laid them aside for later.’

Despite this unassuming introduction, Runnquist immediately recognises that she has written a minor masterpiece. The Summer Book, with its calm, humorous and profound negotiations between young and old, would soon gain the status of Nordic, and then international, classic. 

‘Complexity – that is Tove’s trademark,’ says actress and friend Birgitta Ulfsson. ‘However, when talking about Tove, her sense of humour is her greatest quality for me. (…) Her humour is immense, it permeates everything’.

In her adult literature, Tove Jansson often writes with a piercing gaze, but behind the sharpness, there is a gentleness. It appears in the form of values, of wisdom, and beauty, and it presents itself as very fine art.

Sources & Rights

Text

Hanna Ylöstalo, co-edited by Natania Jansz

Sources

Jansson, Tove. The Listener (1972), translated into English in 2014 by Thomas Teal
(I embrace you in great friendship: ‘The Listener’)

Airas, Charlotte. ‘Tove Jansson på gränsen mellan barn- och vuxenböcker’, Svenska Yle cited 20 May 2021: https://svenska.yle.fi/a/7-886693#media=64193.
(The meaning of words became so important to me)

Karjalainen, Tuula. Tove Jansson. Work and Love (2014), translated into English by David McDuff
(The abstract 1960s: Chapter 8 ‘Back to Painting’)

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

Ulfsson, Birgitta. Unpublished interview with Moomin Characters for the documentary ‘Penseln, pennan, hjärtat’ (2017)

Westin, Boel. Tove Jansson. Life, Art, Words (2014), translated into English by Silvester Mazzarella

Westin, Boel. ‘Stenens berättelse’  in SLS Historiska och litteraturhistoriska studier 89 (2014)

Eds. Westin, Boel & Svensson Helen. Letters from Tove (2019), translated into English by Sarah Death
(I embrace you in great friendship: A letter to Eva Konikoff about embracing friendship 14 August 1946 and about a blue fox cape 24 September 1941)

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


Tove Jansson Tuulikki Pietilä Klovharun