An Island Of Her Own: Susanna Pettersson on Tove Jansson

In advance of the exhibition Tove Jansson: Tales From the Archipelago, we take a look at the island life of this beloved author.

Susanna Pettersson

8 Jul 2014

To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the accomplished Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001), the ICA presents a Fox Reading Room display, Tove Jansson: Tales From the Archipelago. This displays reveals an intimate portrait of Jansson’s life at her artist studio in Helsinki and on her private island in the archipelago of Finland, where she regularly spent the summer months with her female companion Tuulikki Pietilä. Shot over a period of 60 years by Finnish photographer C-G Hagström (b. 1940) and Tove’s brother, photographer Per Olov Jansson (b. 1920), these rare photographs reveal a story of an extraordinary life, and are presented alongside illustrated books and early first editions, some of which first introduced her infamous creations, the Moomins, to a UK audience. 

Susanna Pettersson, Director of the Finnish Institute and co-curator of the exhibition, has written about Tove Janssen’s life on the island for the ICA Blog based on her conversations with the photographers who documented her life for many decades. 

A counterbalance to Tove Jansson’s work-filled life was found in the beloved landscape of her childhood, the islands of the Archipelago Sea. “Surprisingly many people dream of an island,” she wrote in 1961. She read D. H. Lawrence’s short story The Man Who Loved Islands, and considered being an islander as a way of life. Memories of childhood family excursions in the Pellinki archipelago reinforced the idea that Tove, too, wanted her very own island. At her side was her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä. 

In 1964, Jansson began building a cottage on Klovharu Island with local builders. She often called Klovharu an “angry island” – it was barren, windy, and the firewood and fresh water crucial for existence had to be brought from the mainland. On stormy nights they had to take turns guarding the boat so that it would not head off out into the open sea. Despite its resistance the island was much loved.  

“I suppose I have rarely been as happy as I was during those weeks when the timbers were being put up, we hammered as if our lives depended on it! We slept in the Bredskär cottage (I, discretely in the loft) and early each morning we went over to Haru […] it was a stormy autumn, a constant 6 7 on the Beaufort scale. Gradually snow began to arrive. I made food for us on Haru, under a tarpaulin, mostly fish.”

The cottage was completed and Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä’s hiding place became a much loved spot to visit for all their friends and relatives – including gatecrashers! Occasionally there were too many visitors, and it was impossible to do any work. At such times, Tove fled to be among the rocks. She rolled and carried rocks to build stone benches and a stone shelter. She wrote about the rocks and painted them. This calmed her down.  

“I love rock: the cliff that descends vertically to the sea and the high rock that you can’t climb, and the flint in my pocket, levering rocks out of the ground and rolling them out of the way, and when I let the biggest boulders bowl down from the high rock into the sea! When they rumble on their way, they leave a pungent smell of sulphur in the air.” 

Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä wrote about and drew their island experiences for a book, Haru, eräs saari (Haru – an island), published in 1996. The island and the closeness of the sea were also a powerful living presence in Tove Jansson’s literary production. Klovharu Island was a firm fixed point in Jansson and Pietilä’s life, the place where they spent their summers, to which they always returned after long journeys. These journeys varied from a round-the-world trip lasting eight months to spending a few months working in Paris, plus numerous work trips to different parts of the world.  

In September 1991, Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä left Klovharu Island for the last time. As Jansson had written half a century earlier: 

“That night, we went up onto the highest rock and saw the sea sparkling in the white moonlight. It was barely real – the island was like a moonscape or a dream.” ■

Tove Jansson: Tales From the Archipelago runs from 15 July to 24 August. All quotations have been taken from Boel Westin’s 2014 book Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography.

This article is posted in: Exhibitions

Tagged with: Tove Jansson, Susanna Pettersson, Finland, Writer, writing, Islands