FROM THE FRINGE TO THE MAINSTREAM

Times have changed since artist Touko Laaksonen needed to destroy his stylised homoerotic images because of the conservative atmosphere in Finland. Today these controversial art pieces have become a symbol of tolerance.

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1966, Graphite on paper, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection, © 1966 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1966, Graphite on paper, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection, © 1966 Tom of Finland Foundation

Tom of Finland has been the most popular stamp set ever launched by The Finnish Postal Service.

Tom of Finland has been the most popular stamp set ever launched by The Finnish Postal Service. Photo: Itella Posti Oy / Finland. Original images (1978,1979) © Tom of Finland Foundation / USA.

The Finnish postal service, Posti, first introduced stamps in 1856. It took them 158 years to release a stamp set that aroused worldwide interest – a lot of it. Posti’s webstore crashed in April 2014 under the weight of 70,000 pre-orders flooding in from 178 countries. This was all down to Tom of Finland.

The stamp set was by far the most public gesture of acceptance for the controversial Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen, who created his work under the ‘Tom of Finland’ pseudonym. Times have changed since conservative post-war Finland, when he first illustrated men in various states of undress and coupling. Back then Laaksonen was, at times, forced to destroy his illegal imaginings, when unable to find a safe place to store them.

“The things he did are seen in a different light these days, more sympathetic,” explains Susanna Luoto, the Finnish representative of the Tom of Finland Foundation (ToFF), which initiated the Posti stamp. “It has entered into another field than purely sexual. Tom stands for all tolerance today, beyond homosexuality.”

Moustachioed masculinity

The current ubiquity of Tom’s moustachioed masculinity reflects this wider acceptance. His iconic images have appeared on shopping bags, bed sheets, paper products, aprons and fire blankets, thanks to the Foundation’s collaborations with Finnish companies such as Finlayson, Putinki and Jalo Helsinki.

Touko Laaksonen produced over 3,500 works during his lifetime and many now adorn shopping bags, bed sheets, paper products, aprons and fire blankets. The illustrated monochrome images on the Finlayson textile products have been a hit ever since they were launched.

Touko Laaksonen produced over 3,500 works during his lifetime and many now adorn shopping bags, bed sheets, paper products, aprons and fire blankets. The illustrated monochrome images on the Finlayson textile products have been a hit ever since they were launched. Photo: Finlayson

The Finnish textile company Finlayson exclusively prints Tom’s monochrome fabric. When Tom jumped into beds as bedlinen, the Finlayson brand jumped too. The sales of the webshop doubled and the overall sales grew significantly compared to previous years. Tom of Finland helped a company, previously operating mainly in Finland, to grow internationally: the line was taken to more than 21 countries. It has sold the most in its home country, with Sweden and the USA following.

Tom of America

“The way you embed someone is that you endear them to the population, and you do that through things that can be found in everyday life,” explains ToFF president Durk Dehner. “It’s a really healthy way to spread the news, by allowing people to see it, explore it, find out who this man was.”

When Touko Laaksonen began to visit the US regularly in the late 1970s, he came to realise the profound effect that Tom of Finland was having on the gay community. Laaksonen (right) was inspired by his muse and good friend Durk Dehner. Photo: Tom of Finland Foundation

Dehner has observed Tom’s gradual acceptance from a unique vantage point: his three-story home in Los Angeles. It was there in 1984 that he co-founded the non-profit foundation with Laaksonen, as a means of preserving his work and nurturing erotic art.

Although Tom of Finland had cultivated a loyal fanbase in the US from 1956, when his images first appeared in male muscle magazine Physique Pictorial, his inaugural visit to America only came in the late 1970s. Here he found the social climate more conducive to his lifestyle and he became a frequent visitor.

Timeless work

Upon Touko Laaksonen’s eventual passing in 1991, Durk Dehner, his former muse and good friend, took upon the responsibility of preserving his legacy.

“I gave him my personal commitment that I would do everything within my means to keep him in popular culture,” Dehner recalls. “I have been able to do that from generation to generation, because his work is timeless.”

Laaksonen produced over 3,500 works during his lifetime. Many of them are in the possession of ToFF, while others have either been acquired privately or by the permanent collections of museums such as Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Tom of Finland (1920–1991) is often said to be the most famous Finnish artist in the world. His highly stylized homoerotic images have widely influenced not only gay men, but also pop culture and fashion aesthetics. Tom of Finland was the pseudonym of the Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen.

Those seeking his work don’t have to look far. Alongside the expanding catalogue of Tom-themed products on offer, the artist’s work has also been displayed in Germany, Spain, Canada and Norway, to name but a handful of countries.

With numerous exhibitions and a biopic on the horizon, Tom is in no danger of slipping away from the public’s consciousness any time soon.

“This man and his art is endeared and loved and celebrated by all of these people from all of these countries around the world,” Dehner observes. “I can’t think of a better ambassador for Finland than Tom of Finland!”

Tom on display

Tom of Finland’s exhibitions continue to grow in scale worldwide. The largest, The Pleasure of Play, is coming to Helsinki in 2016, after enjoying an acclaimed residency in New York. Looking further ahead, renowned artistic director of Homotopia and curator Gary Everett is staging a Tom of Finland exhibition that will open in Turku in 2017, before touring internationally.

For those who wish to learn more about the beloved man behind the imagery, Finnish director Dome Karukoski is prepping a Laaksonen biopic for release on the silver screen in the near future.

By James O’SullivanThiIsFinland

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