Saturday, January 06, 2018

The sea like a vortex

"The sixth storm, rain. Just barely saved the boat. The sea like a vortex, the surf like cannon fire. The tent broke. Wonderfully beautiful." - Tove Jansson
In the middle of the Tove Jansson exhibition, which is on for a few more days at Dulwich Picture Gallery, there are three large paintings of waves: Abstract Sea (1963), Weathering (1965), Eight Beaufort (1966).  You can see the first of these reproduced in the Telegraph's review, 'Revelatory show about the Moomins creator'. They were painted after she had returned to painting, in the wake of abstract expressionism and after having spent two decades creating the world of the Moomins.  As Tuula Karjalainen writes in the catalogue, Jansson was at this point 'so committed to storytelling that she usually included a figurative element even in her abstract works.  As subjects, she often selected motifs that in themselves already appeared abstract', hence these studies of the sea.  It was also at this time that she was planning and building her cottage on Klovharun island - the quotation above describes her experience camping there before construction began.  The islands of the Finnish archipelago appear through her art and have become part of the imaginative world of anyone who has loved Moominpappa at Sea or The Summer Book.

Thirty years before these abstract sea paintings, at the beginning of her painting career, Tove Jansson painted landscapes in strong colours which are reminiscent of early twentieth century Primitive, Symbolist and Surrealist artists (looking at them I thought of Rousseau, Munch and Nash).  These inevitably prefigure the later Moomin illustrations, like a set of watercolours in this exhibition showing scenes from The Dangerous Journey (1976).  The most striking of her early landscape compositions is actually called Mysterious Landscape and has no precise date.  Mostly painted in cold shades of blue, it shows ghostly trees lining a path to a white building that reminded me of what I saw last year at dusk in Stockholm's woodland cemetery.  Paths of light lead up dark mountains, bare trees burn bright red, and in the distance there is a moonlit fjord.  It seems to be part of a strange and magical story that at the time, before Moomintroll came along, she was still just telling to herself.

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