As a phenomenon within Finnish popular culture, Tom of Finland has gone from secret icon of a forbidden subculture, to acknowledged cartoonist and illustrator, to slightly titillating object marketed to the general public in the form of household products such as stamps, duvet covers, potholders, and coffee. Tom’s creator, Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) and his life are the subject of a recent film, a musical is also in production. It’s not for nothing that Tom is known these days as the new Moomin.
The current presentation of Touko Laaksonen’s erotic images at Kunsthalle Helsinki expands the phenomenon into art discourse, where the images are lined up for review in a traditional exhibition format, curated as a retrospective art show.
There is an enormous number of anecdotes, stories, symbols, readings, and connotations that surround the phenomenon that is Tom of Finland and the different layers of meaning make a traditional analysis of the images impossible. Then again this may not be the ideal way to approach his work. But that doesn’t mean that it is enough to equate Tom of Finland with Touko Laaksonen, as tends to be the case in public discourse. Laaksonen’s own statements on his work are the main source, even for most attempts at deeper theoretical, historical, or aesthetic analysis.
From a Finnish perspective, the story of Tom of Finland lay hidden for a long time and those who had heard of him were certain the pseudonym didn’t actually have anything to do with their nation. When Ilppo Pohjola made the first Tom of Finland documentary in 1991, Laaksonen emerged as an aging gentleman, living at the corner of Lönnrotsgatan and Fredriksgatan in Helsinki, still busy drawing his own and others’ erotic fantasies. He passed away at 71 from lung emphysema. Finnish pop culture cognoscenti gave him the Puupää award in 1990, acknowledging his work as a prominent cartoonist. The award was accompanied by an exhibition at the MUU gallery.
The exhibition at the Kunsthalle describes Laaksonen’s life story room by room, along with the various phases of his production up to the last decades of his life when he was well established, especially within gay American culture, but also in a broader international sense. The creation of the Tom of Finland Foundation in 1984 in collaboration with Durk Dehner made it possible to control the distribution and archiving of Laaksonen’s work. Since then the foundation, based in Los Angeles, has been working to spread information about Tom of Finland, as well as tolerance and acknowledgement of the importance of erotic art.
The reception of Tom of Finland’s imagery in Finland is closely tied to the law against deviant sexual behavior that remained in place until quite recently. While Sweden decriminalized homo-sexuality as early as 1944, that did not happen in Finland until 1971. Homosexuality remained classified as a disease until 1981 and it was not until 1999 that the paragraph prohibiting incitement to homosexual behavior was stricken from Finnish law. This lends Laaksonen’s images a strong historical draw and affirms their importance as social documents, both in terms of their design and existence.
The interesting thing about the exhibition’s historical narrative is to see how Laaksonen developed his imagery partly in relation to himself, partly in relation to the various strata of his surroundings. Evidence of his personal development spans student essays in Åbo, studies at an advertising school, fighting the Soviet Union in World War II – which was formative in terms of sexual experience, studies at the Sibelius Academy, a 28-year relationship with Veli Mäkinen, and a professional life spent in advertising.