“Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation” | 6th March | London

 

 

 

 

 

TOM OF FINLAND, Untitled (From Sex on the Train), 1974, Pen and ink on paper, 10.75″ x 7.88″, Tom of Finland Foundation permanent collection, © 1974 – 2020 Tom of Finland Foundation

The UK’s first public exhibition dedicated solely to gay cultural icon Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen) on the centenary of his birth.

This timely exhibition celebrates the artist whose unique aesthetic and homoerotic visions had a profound impact on the likes of Queen and the Village People – despite living and working in a country where both homosexuality and pornography were illegal.

It will feature iconic, previously unseen drawings from Tom of Finland Foundation’s collection – unabashed tributes to gay sexuality and identity which continue to have an outsize influence today.


The Finnish artist, known for his subversive, sexualised portraits of sailors, policeman and bulging leather-clad bikers, will be remembered in a far-reaching retrospective at London’s House of Illustration to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation will display 40 works on paper produced from the 1960s to the 1980s, both before and after homosexuality was decriminalised in much of Europe and the U.S.

Tom of Finland drew popular acclaim for his highly stylised homoerotic illustrations, which cunningly circumvented restrictive censorship laws of the 1950s and ’60s.

 

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TOM OF FINLAND

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TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1976, Graphite on paper, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

The pneumatic pecs. The bubble butts. The willowy waistlines and accomplished abs. The dicks that could double as fire hoses. Tom of Finland’s iconic drawings of idealized gay sexuality are, as a body of work, a buffet of fantastically rendered flesh. But what continues to make Tom’s men so incredibly subversive is a quality far less salacious than those by which they are best known: their smiles. Years before gay liberation was conceivable and a half-century before society would see quantifiable proof of its fruits, Tom of Finland (birth name: Touko Laaksonen) was depicting hardcore, all-male sex, often set in public spaces, and he was doing it with a positive sensibility. Tom’s men were out, they weren’t pathologized, and they were shameless in a time when it seemed impossible for most gay men to be that way.

“I think the liberated smile that his characters have is still progressive,” says Stefan Kalmár, the curator of Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play, a comprehensive exhibit of Laaksonen’s work that opens in June at New York’s Artists Space (where Kalmár is also executive director). “It’s not like party-and-play, hidden-hotel-rooms business. This is out in the open and therefore still a valuable discussion today about sexuality that’s not about gay marriage.”

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TOM OF FINLAND © Tom of Finland Foundation

Laaksonen’s work retains its radical function; it challenges the current belief held by many gays that in order to secure equal rights, we must downplay the sex in our sexuality and present ourselves as well behaved and “normal” (whatever that means). Tom of Finland spent his career contradicting the prevailing narratives of neutered and effeminate gay life. Of his subjects, Laaksonen said, “I began to exaggerate their maleness on purpose to point out that all gays don’t necessarily need to be just ‘those damn queers,’ that they could be as handsome, strong, and masculine as any other men.”

The Pleasure of Play will include more than 180 drawings, often executed in graphite, and 600 photo collages. The work spans Laaksonen’s childhood growing up in Kaarina, Finland, as the son of schoolteachers to his 1957 entry into the American market via bodybuilding magazines, all the way to the straightforwardly pornographic work that he did up until his death from emphysema in 1991. Kalmár says the exhibition is focused on “the more perverted stuff,” so expect drawings of orgies, leather play, jailhouse scenarios, depictions of sexual versatility, and even some men fucking in Nazi uniforms, which was inspired by the German soldiers who occupied Finland in World War II. “It’s hardcore, in a way,” says Kalmár. “Even now we think, ‘Can we even show this?’ ”

Kalmár peppers his discussion of Laaksonen’s work with unearthed facts about the artist’s life, such as his remaining closeted to his family until death and that he wasn’t particularly sexually active. “I think he was more of a looker,” says Kalmár. In that light, Tom of Finland’s body of work represents an uncommonly literal expression of sexuality. It is a tangible document of time spent worshipping the male form, time that, for so many of us, is just ejaculated away.

Laaksonen’s work was once regarded as utilitarian jerk-off material for men who didn’t have access to gay pornography. But then the porn industry exploded and body-modification technology became so advanced that Tom of Finland’s “fantasy drawings” became more or less a reality. Time may have diminished the intended usefulness of Laaksonen’s work, but it has only affirmed its status as art. In 2015, Tom of Finland is simultaneously nostalgic, prescient, and aspirational. Laaksonen, who received his artistic nom de plume from the editor of Physique Pictorial in 1957, spent his career drawing utopian images of gay sexuality, waiting for the world to catch up, and watching it happen in increments. Those smiles on his men are as blissful as they are knowing.

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