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Tove Jansson: Satirising Stalin

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Tove Jansson (Photo: Hans Gedda, 1967)

By Enlii Lewis

Matt Bonner owes a great deal to Tove Jansson. His six-meter high ‘Trump Baby’ balloon, made infamous during the President’s 2019 state visit, is not the first satiric image of a head of state amid the throes of their terrible twos. On the cover of a 1938 issue of Garm magazine, Tove Jasson introduces this ‘tyrannical toddler’ trope. She places Hitler, mid-tantrum, at the centre of a political patisserie, a variety of European countries being offered to him on a plate. His characteristic moustache is, like Trump’s distinctive blonde toupee, in full bloom at a surprisingly young age. To this day, premature hair growth seems to serve as a metaphor for tyranny.

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However, Tove Jansson’s global renown as an illustrator is not the result of her work as a political satirist. Her fame is founded largely— and almost exclusively until recent years—upon the Moomins. The rounded hippo-like creatures appeared over a series of nine books, the first of which, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945. Moomin-mania took flight after the publication of the Moomin strip in The London’s Evening Standard, which reached up to 20 million readers in over 40 countries. The mania continues to spread, over 70 years later: the BBC has recently commissioned a new animated series, Moominvalley, to be broadcast later this year.

The vast commercial appeal of the Moomins (the MoominValley park in Japan being the most extravagant example—so far) has overshadowed Jansson’s broader artistic legacy, especially outside Finland. Throughout her life, she struggled to establish a persona as a ‘serious artist’. She completed a series of self-portraits, drawing influences from the Impressionists and Matisse. In a 2017 exhibition at The Dulwich Portrait Gallery, a selection of her works ‘beyond the Moomins’ presented an ambitious artist, aware and sophisticated in her response to her social and artistic environment. It is time for Jansson to receive a well-deserved respite from her ‘greatest hits’.

Tove Jansson was an artist, author and illustrator. Born shortly after the outbreak of the first world war, she was raised in Helsinki by her artist parents as part of the Swedish-speaking minority community in Finland. She showed exceptional illustrative talent from a young age, and proceeded to study art in Stockholm and Paris intermittently over a period of eight years. However, her career as a professional illustrator began a before her university studies. Tove’s mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for Garm magazine, and in 1929, at the age of fifteen, Tove decided to join her. Similar to Private Eye, Garm (1923-1953) was a Finnish satirical publication founded by Henry Rein. In the aftermath of the first world war and then during the lead-up to WWII, Fascism quickly became the primary target of Garm’s satire. From her numerous illustrations, it’s clear that Tove thrived and revelled in ridiculing key figures of Nazism and Communism. She was quoted professing how much she enjoyed being ‘swinish towards Hitler and Stalin.’ Working for the publication until its end in 1953, Tove produced 500 caricatures, 100 cover images, and numerous other illustrations for the magazine.

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As a Finnish publication, Garm’s mockery of political figureheads—Hitler in particular—was a risky move. In the winter of 1939, the Soviet Union conducted a partially successful invasion of Finland, which led to Finland’s alliance with Nazi Germany in an attempt to drive back the Soviets. The cover of Garm which depicts Hitler as a spoilt child was a clear reference to the 1938 Munich conference. Above the unsatiated child stands Neville Chamberlain, ready to present his plated ‘English Colonies’.

Tove resented Finland’s association with Hitler. Her response was direct. Both she and the Chief Editor of Garm barely escaped prosecution in Finland for ‘insulting the leader of a friendly foreign power.’ There is no anonymity to her illustrations: each one is clearly signed ‘Tove’. She assumes her political, moral stance publicly and without apology, in a period where such declarations were rarely forgiven or forgotten.

Her satirical wit peaks, for me, on the 1940 Garm cover featuring Stalin. A before and after shot, the image on the left shows Stalin grasping the hilt of his sword, ready to unsheathe it. Both eyebrows and stance are braced for action. He unsheathes to reveal—an unexpectedly short dagger. Horrified, even his moustache becomes limp. Tove, in one swift motion, strips the secretary-general of the Communist Party of power and masculinity. Through the medium of illustration, he is no longer intimidating, but comical. The dog by his feet, initially terrified, can barely contain its laughter. In the realm of the caricature, at least, the reader has the last laugh.

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Tove’s works are creations of war. The protype-Moomin (the Sork) first appears sneaking behind the letter ‘m’ of Garm to peer at Hitler befuddled by a badminton bat. The Moomins and the Great Flood grapples with the struggles of war refugees. Her painting of The Family depicts herself between her parents, torn by conflict; her illustrations for Garm ridicule and trivialise the most dangerous men of her time. Art helps make the unfathomable a little less so. And I think that’s what Tove was doing throughout her career, through different artistic media. Her life was punctuated by conflict. She was born into a world at war, which she relived during her young adulthood. In a letter to her Jewish friend, Eva Konikoff, who fled to America, Tove wrote, ‘Sometimes it feels as if something of the collective agony of the whole world is weighing down heavily in me like a lump, and threatening to burst apart.’ Satire was her outlet as well as her empowerment. Because, if you can’t laugh, what can you do?

Further Reading 

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, by Boel Westin (The authorised biography).

Sculptor’s Daughter, by Tove Jansson (Her memoir, and her first book for adults).

‘Tove Jansson: Love, war and the Moomins’, by Mark Bosworth (From the BBC, on the celebration of the centenary of her birth).

‘Tove Jansson: Beyond the Moomins?’ – Simon Willis (From the New York Review of Books, discussing the 2017 London retrospective of her work).

‘The Island’ – Tove Jansson (A travel piece by Jansson, translated by Hernan Diaz, recently published in The Paris Review).

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