Art in nature.
A short story from The dolls house
Although most famous for her classic Moomin tales for children,
Tove Jansson (19142001) also wrote extensively for adults. Maria
Antas is surprised by the unexpected coldness of many of these stories
of art and solitude
It was easy to love Tove Jansson. The creator of the Moomin characters,
painter, author of childrens books and books for adults, she
was the public symbol of a rare combination of pure wisdom and human
kindness. Finns needed her. As she records in the fragmentary letters
that make up the short story Meddelande (Messages),
people turned to her in order to ask for advice on the most diverse
matters: how does one become a good artist, help me to understand
my parents, my cat has died: help me!
But the letter-fragments also
show the obverse side of what it means to be a much-loved author.
The money wizards wanted to split up her creativity and turn it into
more money. Could the white Moomintroll be turned into black licorice
candy, could Little My be used in advertisements for sanitary towels
for adolescent girls, how much would the copyright cost for Moomin
oven gloves? Meddelande, the very last short story Jansson
published, is truly an illuminating text about the pain of having
been turned into a national and international artistic icon. But it
also includes fragments of letters written to Tove Jansson by her
beloved partner Tooti (the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, the
Too-ticky of the Moomin stories). The icon lived and loved, and was
loved. She was a human being.
Behind the image of Tove Jansson
as an artistic icon live her own texts the long series of books
about life in the exciting and mysterious Moomin Valley, but also
her novels and short stories, which with stern intellectuality reject
all kinds of idealisation. Starting in the late 1960s, Jansson wrote
eleven books for adults which, from an international perspective as
well as in purely Finnish terms, form a complex intellectual structure
relating to the prerequisites of artistic creation and individuality.
In this totality the book Rent spel (Fair play,
1989) forms a central fixed point in the portrayal of the tightrope
walk between the freedom demanded by artistic creation and the communion
on which life must be based. Jonna and Mari are artists, but they
are also lovers who share their everyday lives. Their artistic talents
seek different expressions, but sometimes they are also united in
common joy at the right brushstroke or the right word. The book portrays
a happiness that is lacking in so many other artists in Janssons
Tove Janssons short stories
about artistic creation are often chillingly cold. The artists she
portrays have become lost in their isolated solitude, their creativity,
which shuts other people out. Portraits of such loneliness are drawn
in three short stories in the collection Lyssnerskan (The
listener, 1971), Ekorren (The squirrel),
Svart & vitt (Black & white) and Vargen
(The wolf), which probably frightened many readers
particularly those who knew and loved her Moomin books away
from Janssons work. In their cosmos, warmth is unknown; their
landscapes are frozen, just like the people who seek expression for
their artistic dreams.
The frozen landscape is grey.
A mist often covers it. Seeing, the most important sense in Tove Janssons
texts, is distorted. Without insight, her characters are lost. Grey
is the colour of terror; but beyond the greyness something new awaits.
Grey is therefore also a colour of hope and transformation. In the
story Konst i naturen (Art in nature), the
reader also encounters the shadowy, the unseeing. One night a caretaker
is walking around an island where an art exhibition has been arranged
in contrast to nature, or in harmony with it. As he moves among the
works of art, they change in the nights imperfect light: They
grew up out of the lawn, enormous dark monuments of smooth, incomprehensible
shapelessness, or broken, prickly things, challenging and disturbing.
They stood everywhere among the birch trees as though they had sprouted
from the earth, and when the summer night came and the mist drifted
in from the lake they were as beautiful as rocks or dead trees.
In the semi-twilight the works of art assume frightening dimensions.
They resemble something that is dead. But beyond the greyness of the
night something else awaits, a new day. Just as one of the unlawful
nocturnal visitors declares about a painting he has bought: the picture
of a motif that has closed itself off may suddenly open up, so that
can see life itself behind the painted surface. Nothing is dead and
dumb for ever. Least of all art. It constantly faces outwards; it
is merely necessary for the artist and the viewer to wait until the
process sets itself in motion. So the exhibition caretaker can go
to bed in full confidence. He thinks: Its the element
of mystery thats important, very important in some way.
He went and lay down in the sauna changing room, which had four empty
walls. It was pleasant to look at them and fall asleep without those
old recurring thoughts he was used to.
In Tove Janssons short stories,
as in art, creation and life, there are echoes of many branches of
aesthetics and psychology. We hear echoes of the romantic idea of
sublime terror, and we also hear an ongoing and critical discussion
with psychoanalysis and its view of art as springing from trauma.
But in the short stories there are also references to the minimalist
concepts of modern art. For example, in Konst i naturen
Jansson makes reference to Christos gigantic wrapping project
(in fact, it is possible that the entire story is a commentary on
Christos art) and the tension between surface and hidden contents.
It should however be noted that the story was written in 1978, quite
some time before Christo became a major world figure in installation
Even as early as the charming
portrait of childhood Bildhuggarens dotter (The sculptors
daughter, 1968), Janssons first book for adults, the attentive
reader will see the tightrope walk between art and psychology in embryo.
The little girl in the book looks at her fathers sculptures
of women. They are classically white, they are beautiful, and they
are worth all the admiration they can receive. At the same time, however,
Jansson has the little girl reflect that inside the material there
are real women who yearn to break apart the limits of the material,
women who long to escape the fixed form. Art binds life: beautiful
art can be dangerous, it kills. But on the other hand: there is also
an art that pulsates in the same rhythm as life, art that awakens
strong, intense emotions. The little girl herself possesses the power
to create such art. When she manages to make the carpets ornamental
pattern turn into snakes her little friend cries with terror because
through her stories she is wakening his own inner demons to life.
Art is also deep, deep communication, with ones own inner world,
or with that of the viewer, the listener, the reader. Just as in the
much later short story Bilderna (The pictures,
1991), where by means of his artworks a son succeeds in rendering
visible and thus in taming the inner wild creatures that long tormented
his own father. The father writes to his son, the artist: You
have managed to portray my companions, the other reality has been
given a face. Their dreadfulness makes me calm, no wolf sits in my
chair any longer. Of course: to create art is to open doors
for oneself, and for those close to one. To create is to create an
insightful and regained security. But the wait for the right picture
is a life in grey mist.
My respect for Tove Janssons
unique artistic achievement, including her visual art, does not resemble
love in the sense of love as a feeling of warmth, of being touched.
There is too much coldness in her texts for me to be able to feel
secure. But this makes my respect all the greater. She is bold in
her speculations on and portrayals of the strange connection between
isolation, insight and love. The sharpness of her texts gives me,
too, insight. There are not many artists in modern literature who
offer such a complex and challenging reflection on man and art. But
perhaps respect is, after all, a precondition of love? Perhaps its
love I feel, after all?
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