“I’ve fallen madly in love with a woman” – Queer themes in Tove Jansson’s life and work, part 1

As Tove Jansson’s hometown Helsinki prepares to dress in rainbow colours to celebrate Pride next week, we take a look at the diverse gender roles in Moominvalley and the queer themes that can be found in Tove’s art and life.

Tove Jansson was a bold woman – both in the way she created art and the way she chose to live her life. She was a searcher who wanted to be free to define herself both as a private person and in her work as an artist, defying the strict gender roles of the time. She was both an ambitious painter and an illustrator, a writer of adult fiction and picture books for children and at least for the first part of her life, she had relationships with both men and women.

Her approach to love is beautifully stated in this line, retold by her publisher and friend Helen Svensson in a documetary series about Tove

I always fell in love with a person. Sometimes that person was a man, and sometimes it was a woman. But the important thing was that I fell in love with that person.”

“I’ve fallen madly in love with a woman”

Tove lived together with a woman for 45 years and had several same-sex relationships before that. She did this completely openly, never trying to hide her sexual identity, even if it was not socially tolerated at the time. When she first fell in love with a woman, homosexuality was considered a crime and a disease in Tove’s native Finland, where it remained  illegal until 1971.

In December 1946, when Tove was 32 years old, she wrote the following words to her friend Eva Konikoff:  

“Something has happened to me that I realise I have to tell you about. I’m so happy, so elated and relieved. You know I feel like Atos’s wife, and I expect I always shall. But what has happened now is that I’ve fallen madly in love with a woman. And it seems to me so absolutely natural and genuine – there’s nothing problematic about it at all. I just feel proud and uncontrollably glad. These last weeks have been like one long dance of rich adventure, tenderness, intensity – an expedition into new domains of great simplicity and beauty.”

Secret love letters

The woman who Tove had fallen in love with was Vivica Bandler, an agronomist and charismatic theatre director. They went on to have a passionate love affair, and Tove was bursting with happiness. She wanted to tell the whole world about her newfound love, but Vivica wanted to be more discreet. Their correspondence shows the precautions Tove had to take in order not to disclose that she was the sender of the all the sudden love letters to Vivica.

“P.S. I got my hairdresser to write the brown envelope so you won’t have to start the year with a dreadful scene. I can be sensical! Next time I’ll get the caretaker and after that the grocer.” (Letter to Vivica 30.12.46)

Tove working on the fresco Party in the City together with her assistant.

Vivica is present in one of Tove’s biggest works, a 6×2 meter wall painting called Party in the City for the restaurant at Helsinki City Hall. It was a frecso commissioned by Vivica’s father, who was Chairman of the City Council.

Tove painted herself seated in front of a table, and behind her is Vivica, the object of her secret love, dancing together with a man. (The painting is now part of the collection of HAM, the Helsinki Art Museum, well worth a visit if you’re in Helsinki). Tuula Karjalainen, who has written a biography about Tove, sees this as grandiose expression of love, which however, was perhaps not evident for Tove’s contemporaries. 

In the next part of our series, we’ll see how Vivica inspired the Moomin stories and what other interesting gender themes can be found in the beloved Moomin books and comic strips. During the upcoming week we’ll dive deeper into the queer themes in Tove’s life and art, and also participate in events during Pride week in Finland.

Moomin Characters at Helsinki Pride June 2019

Moomin Characters celebrates Pride in Tove’s hometown Helsinki with a lecture on queer themes in Tove’s life and art a Pride event at the National Musem on Monday, June 24th at 13-13:30 (lecture in Finnish).

We’ll also host a flower workshop together with florist Pirjo Koppi at Young Pride Helsinki on Friday 28.6. 

The event takes place in Nuorten Pride House (Happi), Sörnäisten Rantatie 31 Helsinki. At the event, young people between 13 and 25 years will make their own wreaths, inspired by the wreath Tove used to wear for her birthday.

The flowery wreath motive is also found on Helsinki Pride’s new canvas bags, featuring an exclusive flower design originally made by Tove in 1979 for legendary record label Love Records.

Head over to our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts to be in the draw for a bag, or buy your own at the Pride shops in Stockmann or at the National Museum – the profits are used for Pride Helsinki’s youth and community work.

The quoted letters appear in Letters from Tove Jansson by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson (translated by Sarah Death), forthcoming English edition published by Sort of Books 8th Oct 2019

Photos: header image Beata Bergström, Party in the City black and white Per Olov Jansson