Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Tove Jansson’

29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Too-ticky’s Guide to Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence, and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson

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“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.

Tove Jansson: self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.

Jansson and Pietilä crafting characters for the television adaptation of the Moomin series.

Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.

The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.

Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:

It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:

I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.

In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:

That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.

Too-ticky is also a sage of the “slow churn” and wise champion of the idea that “anything worthwhile takes a long time.” (Janssen would certainly know — she wrote her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1939 and published it in 1945, but it was not a success; her first critical acclaim arrived in 1946, nearly a decade after she had created the Moomins, with the publication of Comet in Moominland.) When Moomintroll grows angry and impatient with the sun’s refusal to rise, Too-ticky reminds him that hurrying is a toxic way of trying to resist the present:

Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.

When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:

He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.

The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:

That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.

Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:

Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”

Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:

He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.

There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:

Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll's sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.

But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:

It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.

Death, too, is part of nature’s necessary cycles of growth and decay. When Moomintroll and Little My remonstrate the very mention of death, Too-ticky responds:

When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?

Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:

One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.

Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:

No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.

Decades before the groundbreaking research on why cultivating grit is the greatest key to success, Jansson made the same point with great subtlety and wisdom.

Moominland Midwinter is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety, as are all of Jansson’s Moomin books. For another taste, see my favorite one.

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30 JUNE, 2014

Tove Jansson’s Rare Vintage Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

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Down the rabbit-hole, Moomin-style.

As a lifelong lover of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, I was thrilled to discover one of its most glorious creative permutations over the past century and a half came from none other than beloved Swedish-speaking Finnish artist Tove Jansson. In 1959, three years before the publication of her gorgeous illustrations for The Hobbit and nearly two decades after her iconic Moomin characters were born, Jansson was commissioned to illustrate a now-rare Swedish edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library), crafting a sublime fantasy experience that fuses Carroll’s Wonderland with Jansson’s Moomin Valley. The publisher, Åke Runnquist, thought Jansson would be a perfect fit for the project, as she had previously illustrated a Swedish translation of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark — the 1874 book in which the word “snark” actually originated — at Runnquist’s own request.

When Runnquist received her finished illustrations in the fall of 1966, he immediately fired off an excited telegram to Jansson: “Congratulations for Alice — you have produced a masterpiece.”

What an understatement.

In 2011, London’s Tate Museum published an English edition of Janssen’s Alice, but copies of that are also scarce outside the U.K. Luckily, this gem can still be found in some public libraries and, occasionally, online.

Complement it with the story of Alice Liddell, the real-life little girl who inspired Carroll’s Wonderland.

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13 JUNE, 2014

Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World

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A visual voyage there and back again.

Writing about the allure of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — that’s perhaps why his stories continue to enchant generations and attract admirers of all ages. Tolkien’s first major work, The Hobbit (public library) — the prequel to his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, which made its debut nearly 20 years later — was published in 1937 and in the years since has drawn remarkable international acclaim. Because the story is driven by visual whimsy, it has also produced a number of vibrant illustrated editions from all around the world, beginning with Tolkien’s own artwork for the original edition, which I wrote about some years ago. Here are a few favorites.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN (GREAT BRITAIN, 1937)

In October of 1936, Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of The Hobbit, in which he included more than 100 illustrations — Tolkien, unbeknownst to many, was a rather gifted and prolific artist. These manuscript drawings were recently released in The Art of the Hobbit (public library) — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.

In creating the artwork for The Hobbit, Tolkien borrowed from a short story he had written for his son Michael, titled “Roverandom.”

Also included are conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more of Tolkien’s art here.

TOVE JANSSON (SWEDEN, 1962)

In 1962, shortly before she received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award, beloved Swedish-speaking Finnish artist, writer, and Moomin creator Tove Jansson illustrated a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Janssen was at the peak of her career and brought to the Tolkien classic her signature touch of subtly wistful whimsy.

Alas, this gem is now severely out of print, practically unfindable online, but available at some better-stocked public libraries.

RIYÛICHI TERASHIMA (JAPAN, 1965)

In 1965, artist Ryûichi Terashima illustrated a Japanese edition of The Hobbit, notable not only for its delicate line drawings but also for the exquisite production of the book itself, which mirrors the sensibility of Terashima’s art with lavish paper and luxury binding. It has been reprinted several times, as recently as 2008.

The book is currently out of print, but used copies can be found online; alas, not at the library.

MIKHAIL BELOMLINSKY (RUSSIA, 1976)

In 1976, Russian — then Soviet — artist Mikhail Belomlinsky took on the Tolkien classic shortly after graduating from an MFA program in painting, architecture, and sculpture. The opportunity kicked off Belomlinsky’s career as he turned to political cartooning and children’s books. He went on to illustrate more than 100 of the latter, both in Soviet Russia and in the United States after his move to New York City in 1989.

JIRI SALAMOUN (CZECH REPUBLIC, 1979)

In 1979, when he was forty-four — the same age Tolkien was when he published The Hobbit — the Czech artist, graphic designer, and illustrator Jiri Salamoun was commissioned to illustrate a Czech edition of the book. He brought his eclectic background in visual storytelling and the graphic arts — spanning film poster design, typography, book illustration, and silk-screen printing — to the project.

This vintage gem is also a rarity, but some libraries do have it.

BONUS: MAURICE SENDAK (UNITED STATES, 1967)

In 1967, six years after legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom had nurtured his creative direction and four years after his iconic Where the Wild Things Are, 39-year-old Maurice Sendak was commissioned to illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of The Hobbit. But the project fell through, leaving behind only a single surviving drawing, which Open Culture unearthed.

A realized edition would’ve been unimaginably wonderful, judging by Sendak’s artistic interpretations of literary classics like William Blake’s Song of Innocence, which he illustrated the same year as the failed Tolkien project, and Tolstoy’s Nikolenka’s Childhood, completed four years earlier.

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