Before Creating the Moomins, Tove Jansson Drew Satirical Art Mocking Hitler & Stalin

Much of the world has only recent­ly dis­cov­ered the Moomins, those lov­able hip­popota­mus-like fig­ures — giv­en, it must be said, to moments of star­tling brusque­ness and com­plex­i­ty — cre­at­ed in the 1940s by Finnish artist Tove Jans­son. In forms rang­ing from dolls and school sup­plies to neck pil­lows and cell­phone cas­es, they’ve late­ly become a full-blown craze in South Korea, where I live. Like any mas­sive­ly suc­cess­ful (and high­ly mer­chan­dis­able) char­ac­ters, the Moomins over­shad­ow the rest of Jansson’s oeu­vre. Hence exhi­bi­tions like Tove Jans­son (1914–2001) at Lon­don’s Dul­wich Pic­ture Gallery, which “aims to rec­ti­fy the fact that less atten­tion has gen­er­al­ly been paid to her range as a visu­al artist.”

That descrip­tion comes from Simon Willis’ review of the show in the New York Review of Books. “In Octo­ber 1944, Tove Jans­son drew a cov­er for Garm, a Finnish satir­i­cal mag­a­zine, show­ing a brigade of Adolf Hitlers as pudgy lit­tle thieves,” Willis writes. These draw­er-rifling, house-burn­ing car­i­ca­tures “were not unusu­al for Jans­son, who had been belit­tling Stal­in and Hitler in the mag­a­zine since the ear­ly days of World War II.” But “peek­ing out at the chaos from behind the magazine’s title,” there was also a “tiny pale fig­ure with a long nose”: a pro­to-Moomin mak­ing an appear­ance the year before the pub­li­ca­tion of the first Moomin book. (And even he was forged in mock­ery, hav­ing first been drawn by Jans­son, so the sto­ry goes, as a car­i­ca­ture of Immanuel Kant.)

Hav­ing start­ed con­tribut­ing to Garm, accord­ing to the offi­cial Moomin web site, “in 1929 at the young age of 15 (her moth­er Signe Ham­marsten-Jans­son had worked for the pub­li­ca­tion since it start­ed),” she kept on doing so until the mag­a­zine fold­ed in 1953.

“Dur­ing that peri­od she drew more than 500 car­i­ca­tures, a hun­dred cov­er images and count­less oth­er illus­tra­tions for the mag­a­zine.” In them, writes Glas­stire’s Caleb Math­ern, “angels appear on bat­tle­fields. Rein­deer pre­pare to rain TNT. An effete, under­sized Hitler cries instead of eat­ing slices of cake. Jans­son even impugns Stalin’s man­hood with an over­sized scabbard/undersized sword joke.” To the young Jans­son, the best part was the chance, as she lat­er put it, “to be beast­ly to Stal­in and Hitler.”

Even after the suc­cess of the Moomins, Jans­son con­tin­ued to draw on the imagery and emo­tions of war: “The first time we meet young Moom­introll and his Moom­in­mam­ma in The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), they are refugees, cross­ing a strange and threat­en­ing land­scape in search of shel­ter. Moom­in­pap­pa, mean­while, is absent, as fathers often were dur­ing the war,” writes Aeon’s Richard W. Orange. In the next book “the world is threat­ened by a comet that sucks the water out of the sea, leav­ing an apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape in its wake.” With the Cold War heat­ing up, the alle­go­ry would hard­ly have gone unno­ticed. Like all mas­ter satirists, Jans­son went on to tran­scend the sole­ly top­i­cal — and indeed, so the increas­ing­ly Moomin-crazed world has demon­strat­ed, the bound­aries of time and cul­ture.

via Aeon/Moomin

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Edu­ca­tion for Death: The Mak­ing of Nazi–Walt Disney’s 1943 Pro­pa­gan­da Film Shows How Fas­cists Are Made

Don­ald Duck & Friends Star in World War II Pro­pa­gan­da Car­toons

“The Duck­ta­tors”: Loony Tunes Turns Ani­ma­tion into Wartime Pro­pa­gan­da (1942)

Dr. Seuss Draws Anti-Japan­ese Car­toons Dur­ing WWII, Then Atones with Hor­ton Hears a Who!

The Sub­lime Alice in Won­der­land Illus­tra­tions of Tove Jans­son, Cre­ator of the Glob­al­ly-Beloved Moomins (1966)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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