Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.

365 Days of Art: December 30 – Mob Destroys Michelangelo’s Statue

Raphael, Pope Julius II, 1511-1512
Raphael, Pope Julius II, 1511-1512

December 30, 1511

Michelangelo’s statue of his frenemy Pope Julius II, who is patron of the Sistine Chapel and other projects, is destroyed by a mob. The tie a rope around its neck and pull the 10,000 pound statue from its pedestal. It smashes into pieces, but not before it leaves a crater in the ground. Alfonso d’Este, an enemy of Julius, melts it into cannon–an ignominious end!

365 Days of Art: December 29 – Eisenhower Orders Soldiers to Take Responsibility for Protecting World’s Art

General Eisenhower surveying looted artwork.
General Eisenhower surveying looted artwork.

December 29, 1943

In an extraordinary memo, General Dwight Eisenhower clearly and directly charges each soldier with the responsibility of protecting the world’s cultural treasures:

To: All Commanders

Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.

If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.

It is a responsibility of higher commanders to determine through A.M.G. Officers the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us. This information passed to lower echelons through normal channels places the responsibility of all Commanders of complying with the spirit of this letter.


November 28 – Bazille Killed on Battlefield

Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867
Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867

November 28, 1870

Impressionist painter Frédéric Bazille dies on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War. He is fighting with the Zouaves, a light infantry regiment, and has been frustrated at the lack of action. Today, in a minor battle, his officer is injured and Bazille takes command. He leads an assault on the Prussians, is struck twice while retreating, and dies in the snow. Some of his friends, such as Édouard Manet, don’t learn of his death for three months.

365 Days of Art: November 17 – Duke of Milan Ships Out Leonardo’s Bronze, Gorky Writes Optimistic Note About Prolific Summer of Drawing

Leonardo, Studies of a Horse, c. 1482-1499
Leonardo, Studies of a Horse, c. 1482-1499

November 17, 1494

Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, sends all of the bronze that Leonardo has collected for casting a statue of a horse to his father-in-law, who makes it into cannon.

Arshile Gorky, Virginia Summer, 1946
Arshile Gorky, Virginia Summer, 1946

November 17, 1946

Arshile Gorky writes to his friend Vartoosh Mooradian:

This summer I completed a lot of drawings — 292 of them. Never have I been able to do so much work, and they are good too.”

This productive summer is one of the bright spots of Gorky’s year. His unlucky streak begins with a fire in his studio in January, caused by a stove he’s installed only the month before. The fire ruins almost all of his work. Two months later, he undergoes a colostomy for rectal cancer, and goes to his in-laws’ house in Virginia to recuperate. He draws the landscape in the fields during the day, and scenes by the fireplace each night.

This optimistic period of work is followed shortly by infidelity in his marriage, a serious car accident, deep depression and his eventual suicide.

365 Days of Art: November 15 – Homer is Published, O’Keeffe is Born, Bernstein Protests NEA, Vandal is Sentenced

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac - A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862
Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862

November 15, 1862

Winslow Homer’s The Army of the Potomac-A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty a wood engraving based on a painting, is published in Harper’s Weekly.

Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939
Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1, by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1939

November 15, 1887

Georgia O’Keeffe is born.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

November 15, 1989

The composer Leonard Bernstein declines a National Medal of Arts, awarded to him by the White House, in protest of the NEA rescinding a grant for an art exhibition on AIDS. As a gay man and AIDS activist, Bernstein says he cannot stand by without making a statement, especially as the NEA is responsible both for recommending him to the White House and for revoking the grant money.

Cy Twombly, Three Dialogues (Phaedrus), 1977. The vandalized panel was the white one.
Cy Twombly, Three Dialogues (Phaedrus), 1977. The vandalized panel was the white one.

November 15, 2007

A woman who vandalizes a painting by kissing it with red lipstick is sentenced in court for the crime. The painting is a panel of the Cy Twombly triptych Phaedrus, of which she says:

It was just a kiss, a loving gesture…I thought the artist would understand…. It was an artistic act provoked by the power of Art.”

Her sentence is to pay €1,000 to the painting’s owner, €500 to the Avignon gallery that showed it, and €1 to Twombly.

365 Days of Art: November 10 – Frida and Diego Arrive in SF, NY Times Reports on Nazi Looting, Gorky Exhibits at the Whitney, Hockney Faxes an Artwork

Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via
Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via

November 10, 1930

Frida and Diego arrive in San Francisco, where he has mural commissions to work on.

Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.
Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.

November 10, 1943

The New York Times reports “Unique Collection of Art Treasures Taken Away by Germans in Italy”, referring to the trucks carrying artwork for Goring’s birthday party.

Arshile Gorky, Organization, 1933
Arshile Gorky, Organization, 1933

November 10, 1936

Arshile Gorky’s painting Organization is exhibited the Whitney’s Third Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. From here on, he will regularly be included in the Whitney’s shows.

David Hockney, Tennis, 144 faxes, 1989.
David Hockney, Tennis, 144 faxes, 1989.

November 10, 1989

David Hockney, exploring new technology, faxes 144 sheets to the 1853 Gallery, in front of a live audience. The 144 sheet together make an image called Tennis.

I guarantee this is the most boring live event ever. And I’m sure some of you are asking “What’s a fax?”.

365 Days of Art: November 3 – Joseph Cornell Writes a Polite Letter, Matisse Dies, 100 Trucks Full of Confiscated Artwork Head to Germany

Cockatoo with Watch Faces, by Joseph Cornell, 1949
Cockatoo with Watch Faces, by Joseph Cornell, 1949

November 3, 1938

Joseph Cornell writes a letter to an employee named Iris Barry at MoMA’s Film Library. He’s a very polite correspondent:

Dear Miss Barry,

Between the increasing activity of the Film Library and an injury I sustained on my vacation a few weeks ago, it hasn’t been very convenient for me to speak to you about the film of mine left at Deluxe last March. I believe that Jay Leyda said that you had viewed these items and had liked the primitive French Indian subject and one of the Pearl Whites. I am wondering if you could let me know (when you have a breathing spell) of your decision, if any, to keep two of these three subjects…”

Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.
Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.

November 3, 1943

Nazi records with today’s date state that in the last three weeks, 100 trucks, fully loaded with artwork, have left the abbey of Monte Cassino outside of Rome. They are all headed for Rome and “points north” [i.e., Germany], and all of the cargo is intended to be birthday presents for Reichsmarschall Herman Goring.

Matisse and Picasso self-portraits, both 1916
Matisse and Picasso self-portraits, both 1916

November 3, 1954

Henri Matisse dies. He works up until the end, completing his last work, a design for a stained glass window, just a few days before his death.

His daughter Marguerite Duthuit gives an interview almost six years later about trying to break the news to his longtime friend and rival, Picasso:

When Matisse died, we informed him [Picasso] immediately. They were very friendly, intimate. You would have thought he’d come to the phone to tell us how this sad news affected him.

After a long wait, we were told, “M. Picassso is having lunch, he cannot be disturbed.”

We were expecting a telegram, a phone call. Nothing. Thinking no-one had given him the message, we called back. It was the same thing.

And when we tried to speak to him a third time, we were told: “M. Picasso has nothing to say about Matisse, since he is dead.”

Could he really have said that? Or could someone have replied unbeknownst to him, to spare him intense emotion?

365 Days of Art: October 29 – Tortured Witness Testifies Against Artemesia, George Luks Dies After Bar Fight, Art Forger Goes on Trial

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1611-1612
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1611-1612

October 29, 1612

The manuscript from the trial of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist shows that Artemisia’s studio assistant gives testimony against the victim, his boss…while being tortured.

Nicolo Bedino, who ground and mixed colors for Artemisia, is stripped naked and hung from a rope while testifying that he had delivered letters from her to several men. This evidence is used to imply that she was a loose woman, and that it isn’t a case of rape at all.

George Luks, "The Wrestlers", 1905
George Luks, “The Wrestlers”, 1905

October 29, 1933

George Luks dies after a bar fight in NYC.

Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.
Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.

October 29, 1947

The trial of art forger Han van Meegeren begins in Amsterdam. He becomes one of the world’s best art forgers ever, deciding that he has something to prove after art teachers and critics call his work unoriginal and uninspired. One of his forged Vermeers is hailed as one of the finest “Vermeers” ever.

His forgery is discovered after World War II when when a forged piece (believed to be authentic) is discovered in Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring’s private art collection. Dutch authorities charge Han with giving away Dutch cultural property and arrest him as a Nazi conspirator. Han decides to admit to the forgery, a lesser crime, rather than be sentenced to death for treason.

365 Days of Art: October 21 – Delacroix Writes to Brother About Patriotism, Guggenheim Museum Opens, Warhol Invites Self to Party at Leather Bar

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix, 1830
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix, 1830

October 21, 1830

Eugene Delacroix, who has been working on Liberty Leading the People, writes to his brother:

My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject — a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.”

Guggenheim Museum, NYC
Guggenheim Museum, NYC

October 21, 1959

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opens on Fifth Avenue in the stunning spiral building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s one of my favorite buildings because it’s so weird. It’s the first American museum to be built from scratch, rather than converted from a private residence.

Fun fact: Ellsworth Kelly recalls a not-yet-famous Andy Warhol, dressed in a suit for the opening reception. Not only does Andy eavesdrop on a private conversation, but he hears others discuss plans to go to an after-party at a gay leather bar, then stuns everyone by inviting himself along.

365 Days of Art: October 15 – Fascist Propaganda Discusses Artworks, Lee Krasner Has First Solo Show

Palermo devastated by American bombing, May 1943
Palermo devastated by American bombing, May 1943

October 15, 1943

Radio Rome provides this bit of Fascist propaganda:

The first ships left Sicily for London today with precious works of art, some of which will go to the British Museum and some to private collections”.

The idea is to create suspicion surrounding Americans interested in artworks (i.e., the Museum and Fine Arts Archives Program, AKA the Monuments Men). Given that American bombs have devastated Palermo just months earlier, feelings are already running high. A healthy dose of national pride doesn’t hurt either…what red-blooded Italian/Sicilian wants to see his or her cultural treasures going to private collectors in London, for pete’s sake??

Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1948
Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1948

October 15, 1951

Lee Krasner has her first solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery.

365 Days of Art: October 14 – Marshall Telegram to Eisenhower Shows Concern for Artworks

Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

October 14, 1943

During World War II, it’s common to lodge Allied soldiers in cultural institutions. While many of them are emptied of their portable treasures, stationery pieces like frescoes, mosaics, even hidden artworks, remain. For example, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, provides bunking quarters, as well as a pharmaceutical ward where flammable alcohol is stacked up next to priceless frescoes. One of the duties of the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program (MFAA, but more commonly called Venus Fixers or Monuments Men) is to ensure that soldiers aren’t improperly billeted in cultural institutions.

Amid concerns about whether soldiers would be respectful enough of their surroundings, or treat them like “saloons”, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall cables General Eisenhower to say:

protection of artistic and historic monuments in Italy is subject of great concern to many institutions and societies”.

365 Days of Art: October 7 – Lover’s Death Inspires Hartley Portrait, Rothko Painting Vandalized

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914
Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914

October 7, 1914

Marsden Hartley’s lover, Karl von Freyburg, dies in World War I; his death inspires Hartley to paint Portrait of a German Officer.

Vandalism of Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon
Vandalism of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon

October 7, 2012

Art vandal Wlodzimierz Umaniec uses indelible, dripping ink to scribble his name and a slogan (“12 a potential piece of yellowism”) on Rothko’s 1958 painting Black On Maroon at the Tate in London. Wlodzimierz, who compares himself to Marcel Duchamp and claims he improved the work and its value, goes to jail for two years. Despite initial doubts that the piece could be saved, conservation experts work some real magic and the painting, one of the Seagram murals, goes back on display about two years later, to the delight of the Tate and Rothko’s family.

The damage to the work is especially wrenching because the painting has a special place in art history. Rothko personally donates the painting to the Tate, and it arrives at the museum on the day Rothko commits suicide.