Midnight blue Moomin posters along the escalators on the underground invite you to visit a magical realm: Moominland. This realm can currently be found in the form of an immersive exhibition at the Southbank Centre as part of its Nordic Matters season. It’s aimed at children, but grown ups can enjoy it just as much as it tells the life of Moomin-creator Tove Jansson (1914-2001) and how her experiences influenced her writing.
To join the Adventures in Moominland, as the exhibition is called, you’re asked to follow a tour guide with a small group of fellow travellers. Through the opening of a gigantic book, we step inside the world of Tove Jansson… There we are welcomed by Moomintroll, joyful music and a narration with the familiar voice of Sandi Toksvig: We’re going on an adventure dear / to a very special place / it’s bewildering and exciting / it’s full of twists and turns / we can keep one another company / whilst the fire burns, she tells us and, like a good companion, goes on to guide us through Tove’s world, together with the actual tour guide.
A tent on a sandy beach awaits us. Outside a cosy fire is crackling gently while we learn how the character of Moomintroll evolved. With the Moomins taking shape and Tove leaving the family nest, we enter her studio in Helsinki. At the centre stands an easel and, to the side, Tove’s palette and painting utensils are on display. The 19th-century-style room is furnished with a bookcase showing the magazine GARM for which she made illustrations, a desk and a record player. The soft sound of jazz fills the room, evoking the parties, discussions and laughter she shared with her friends as a young woman.
But, with the Second World War raging in Europe, we soon find ourselves in a dark cave, reminiscent of a bomb shelter. These dangerous times are reflected in Tove’s books from the period, such as Comet in Moominland (1946). An enchanted forest with flowers and fairylights offers refuge. There’s also a suitcase hidden here – but not just anybody’s suitcase, it’s Thingumy and Bob’s suitcase, kept tightly closed – and only revealed to people they trust – because its content is a secret. Both characters always hang out together and those who can read between the lines know that this pair represents Tove and her lover Vivica Bandler at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
The journey takes us on to the island of Klovharu, where turbulence within Tove’s family is revealed and captured in the story of Moominpappa at Sea (1965). More sombre times lie ahead, and we are ushered into a cold winter’s night, where a full moon shines on to a snow-covered landscape with bare birch trees. Somewhere the chilling, lonely Groke is lurking. Yet, to hear that this creature is not so scary at heart is reassuring. During this cold season, when the Moomins normally hibernate, an unsettled Moomintroll sets out into the unknown in Moominland Midwinter (1957). Tove herself becomes involved with Tuulikki Pietilä, her long-term partner, who lets her see the winter in a new, more positive light. Tuulikki is also the inspiration for the character of Too-Ticky. After a long, adventurous journey we finally reach the comforts of Moominhouse, where the Moomin family is fast asleep and the little party of visitors quietly departs to re-emerge into the reality of the Southbank Centre.
Sandi Toksvig is a clever choice of narrator as her familiar voice offers a sense of homeliness, but also fits, being from Denmark, into the Nordic Matters theme – not to mention her own sexuality, which chimes in with Tove Jansson’s. Her narration and quotes from Tove’s books stress the idea of storytelling and the beauty of words. The text itself is written by children’s author Laura Dockrill and is wonderfully complemented by what the tour guide tells us about Tove’s life and the way it is reflected in her books. The different rooms also show archival sketches of the Moomins and letters placed in glass cases that are built into the specific features of the place – be that a treasure trove, a rock or a cupboard.
Besides the magical imagery and poetry of the words, the jazz music is also a relevant feature of this exhibition. It represents Tove’s grown-up world as she loved jazz; and it’s refreshing to read that it was composed by Aki Rissanen and commissioned by Southbank Centre – so new work can be heard.
Adventures in Moominland lets you literally delve inside the wondrous world of Tove Jansson and her creations. The exhibition runs until 20 August.
More work by Tove Jansson can be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from 25 October 2017.
By Sabine Schereck