Tom of Finland: Crossing Over To The Realm Of Fine Art

Words: Alice Lenkiewicz ©Artlyst 2013

I first came across the work of Tom of Finland at the Homotopia exhibition titled, “Fellow Travellers,” at Novas Contemporary Urban centre, Liverpool, in 2008. At the time, I was writing reviews for local events. Seeing his work was intriguing and memorable. My initial reaction, to his brand of homoeroticism was its freshness, as if it were something I’d never seen before, but actually taking into account my many years of exposure to the subject, I realised its familiarity and frequency, as subject matter in contemporary art today.


TOM OF FINLAND, Untitled (Detail) 1976, Gouache on paper, 17.75” x 24.00”
Volker Morlock collection, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

Tom Laaksonen passed away in 1991. His legacy has influenced an entire generation. In 1984 the Tom of Finland Foundation was dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting homoerotic artwork. Although Tom may have been criticised by some in the Art world, he remained true to himself and opened up another important thread to how the public perceive art. Tom of Finland’s work covers six decades. His social and personal impact has placed his work within the Fine Art realm.

In many ways my interest in art began, because of a love of works from the Renaissance. I had also always related to the Greek aesthetic of beauty. It was at quite a young age that I became aware of artists who were gay, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo. Perhaps when I first saw Michelangelo’s  David and admired this incredible sculpture, I was somehow aware that I was also looking at another man’s admiration of male beauty.

Touko Laaksonen, AKA Tom of Finland was a Finnish artist. He has been described as, ”notable for his stylised androerotic and fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. He has been called the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade.” (1)

Looking back on my first visit to the Homotopia exhibition in Liverpool, I was given some guidance on the exhibition by curators who were exhibiting Tom’s work and they said to try and look beyond the pornographic connotations and to remember that the show was not necessarily for a gay audience. 

Having been brought up with an artist father whose erotic work of women has sometimes been critiqued for being too pornographic for the general public to see, I related to this and felt a sense of protection towards an artist who was simply stressing very honestly and completely openly his love of drawing men, male fashion and gay erotica. Tom himself said, “In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway – they had the sexiest uniforms!” This is quite amusing considering that we don’t often want to confess to  putting men of war in this sexual context. However, I remember as a young girl feeling attracted towards male icons, particularly in Westerns. The Magnificent Seven film of 1960, was always one of my favourites for its iconographic figures of masculinity.

Tom of Finland uses clothing as one way of communicating his fascination with male beauty and eroticism, particularly emphasising the male form and tough male clothing as well as emphasising the male genitals, something that has been with us for centuries. One of the most popular fashion accessories of the Middle Ages was the codpiece to emphasise virility;.

Born in 1920, Tom was brought up in Kaarina, in south western, Finland. His parents were teachers in the school and they gave him a good education in arts and music. Tom like many artists was interested in the what is sometimes referred to as the ‘real world’, the world  away from security and middle-class values.The men in the ‘real world’ were hard working labourers. The tough masculine man is very much part of his influence and creative vision, masculine power and authority.

Post World War II saw the rise of the biker culture as rejecting “the organisation and normalisation of life after the war, with its conformist, settled lifestyle. Biker subculture was both marginal and oppositional and provided postwar gay men with a stylised masculinity that included rebelliousness and danger which were absent from dominant gay stereotypes.” (2)

Tom’s masculine drawings conflicted against stereotypical former images of gay men which were more effeminate. ”He capitalized on the leather and denim outfits which differentiated those men from mainstream culture and suggested they were untamed, physical, and self-empowered. This is contrasted with the mainstream, medical and psychological sad and sensitive young gay man who is passive.” (3)

Over the course of four decades Tom produced some 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing. It is worth remembering that  police activity against gay men was rife throughout the 1950s. ‘Tom’s style and content in the late 1950s and early 1960s was partly influenced by the U.S. censorship codes that restricted depiction of “overt homosexual acts” (4). Therefore Tom had to present his work under the beefcake genre in order to stand a chance of getting his work seen, usually by private collectors and consumers who sought out the underground gay scene.

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