Finnish Art Icons: Tove Jansson and her Moomins

Tove Jansson, Moomin Family

Tove Jansson, Moomin Family

“Moomin” is a word Walt Disney wanted exclusive rights to in the 1950s. The significance of this word may puzzle Americans, but for millions of children around the world, it needs no translation.

Technically Moomin is a nonsensical word, but it’s also the name of a hippopotamus-like creature who lives in a place called Moominvalley with his family of Moomintrolls.

“Moomin is probably the most known and adored Finnish icon, if not before, then right after Santa Claus,” according to the Official Travel Site of Finland.

In fact, Moomins pop up in the most unexpected places: Finnair’s airplanes, Japanese catalogues, even in Björk’s music video. Once you start seeing Moomins you can’t stop seeing them everywhere.

Moomin began as a caricature of Immanuel Kant, drawn on a bathroom wall by the Finnish visual artist, illustrator and author Tove Jansson during an argument with her brother. In the 1940s, the caricature evolved into the cuddly, and not entirely un-philosophical Moomintroll family.

Moomin is the main character of Jansson’s comic strip, which follows the whimsical Moomintroll family on various adventures as they subvert their “very ordinary middle-class life.” The family is made up of practical Moominmamma and eccentric Moominpappa, their romantic son Moomin, and his flighty girlfriend Snorkmaiden.

Tove Jansson, Self Portrait; courtesy Tove 100
Tove Jansson, Self Portrait

In 1951, Jansson’s third children’s book, Finn Family Moomintroll, was translated into English and caught the attention of a London agent who asked her to produce six strips a week for the next seven years. In just two years the comic strip reached 12 million readers thanks to its publication and syndication through the British Associated Press in 120 newspapers around the world.

Since then, their adventures have been translated into 44 languages, and Moomins have become some of the most popular children’s characters in the world, even going as far as building their own theme park. And this is despite Jansson’s refusal to work with Disney — take that Mickey Mouse!

Today Moomins are as popular as ever and not just in their native Finland; Moomin books have sold more than 15 million copies around the world since they were published in 1945.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2006 that the Montréal based publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, brought Moomin comics to North America. Here, as everywhere, those who discover Moomin and his family become enchanted.

As the daughter of artists, Jansson’s Moomin comics reflect her rollicking and introspective childhood. In her stream of consciousness memoir, Sculptor’s Daughter, Jansson recalls her unique upbringing within the city of Helsinki and among the rich nature of the Finnish countryside.

Tove Jansson, 1956; Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Tove Jansson, 1956; Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While readers may assume Moominvalley is an imaginary land, Finnish readers identify the setting as entirely realistic. This comes as no surprise since many of the Moomintrolls’s adventures mirror experiences Jansson had during the summers she spent on Klovharu, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland.

Similarly the fantastic characters whom Moomin and his family encounter, including worldly vagrants, pessimistic professors and eccentric artists were most likely all modeled after characters Jansson encountered in real life as the daughter of a sculptor and an illustrator.

Jansson’s childhood recollections reflect a deep passion for art and nature and their intersections. Moomin echoes these sentiments when he refuses to don a velvet beret and join the modern art scene for money, declaring, “I only want to live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!”

Much like her characters, Jansson refused to conform and continues to inspire. This year would have marked Jansson’s 100th birthday and many countries have joined Finland for Tove 100: an international celebration of her contributions to art and literature.

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Brigands,1953; Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly
Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Brigands,1953; Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly

The complete collection of comic strips drawn by Tove Jansson, and later her brother, Lars Jansson, is available through Drawn and Quarterly in eight volumes. Her ten children’s books are also available from Drawn and Quarterly.

For more information about Jansson and her enduring legacy, visit the official Moomin website for “All Things Moomin” and the Tove 100 website.

Author

Adrienne Blaine

Adrienne Blaine is a Millennial writer from the South Bay. She has a BA in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies combined with Communications and Media Studies from Franklin University Switzerland. She currently works as a writing and reading instructor and academic interventionist.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor