Life & Culture

Inside the UK’s First Tom of Finland Exhibition

Opening today, Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation is the first public show of the Finnish artist’s work on British shores

Flash back a decade or two and Tom of Finland was a cult figure, an artist who raised a knowing smile among those who knew him – best known for living at the more provocative end of Taschen’s book list and being a touch kitsch, like the line-up of the Village People. Yet today the late Finnish artist (born Touko Laaksonen) is rightfully being repositioned as an immensely talented draughtsman who has helped redefine – or rather define – the homoerotic in popular culture.

This exhibition opening at the House of Illustration in London, which coincides with the centenary of his birth, is surprisingly his first public show in the UK. Exhibition curator Olivia Ahmad thinks it is about time. “I don’t think the recognition he has had from the mainstream art world matches his significance as an artist,” she says.

There are 70 pieces in the exhibition that were made from the 1950s to the 1980s, more than 20 of which have never been shown before. The selection includes 40 works on paper created between the 1960s and 1980s, on loan from the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, which has been championing his work since 1984.

The artist, who died in 1991 aged 70, worked as an art director for ad agencies and created his images under a pseudonym on the side, publishing them initially in bodybuilding magazines. Keeping the work anonymous at first was necessary. He was creating his work before and after homosexuality – and male nudity – was decriminalised.

Tom’s view of sex, sexuality and masculinity has had a huge influence on queer culture. The hypermasculine archetypes he depicted – such as policeman, soldiers, lumberjacks and sailors – provided an alternative to the softer, fey cliches of the time. In his work, masculinity itself becomes more nuanced and less binary, even though it toyed with masculine archetypes. Instead of being a source of oppression for gay men, it became a source of their arousal. In fact, Tom created his work for an audience of gay men, once saying its aim was to “tell them not to give up [and] to think positively about their act and their whole being”. Here, in the fantasy land of his drawings, their sexuality was something strong, open and free – not weak, hidden and repressed.

Tom’s aesthetic impacted everyone from Robert Mapplethorpe to Freddie Mercury and he had a notable relationship with fashion, too. “Clothes were really important to Tom, he said that naked men were beautiful, but that they were ‘more than beautiful’ when clothed,” says Ahmad. “His personal fetish for leather and the archetypal clothing of manual workers and state and military authority figures developed into a distinctive aesthetic which influenced street fashion, as well as couture.” Jean Paul Gaultier’s perfume bottle, for example, is a nod to Tom. Cali Thornhill DeWitt created T-shirts and sweatshirts for the foundation last year, emblazoned with a fictional Cock University logo.

There is something over the top about Tom of Finland’s work which delights its viewers. “Tom distorted his figures so that they were impossibly muscular and strong-looking, and often dressed them in the clothes of military or state authority figures or as ‘macho’ blue-collar workers – this was a direct counter to prevalent emasculating stereotypes.”

The artist was also a huge fan of the British capital, inspired by the gay biker scene he discovered there as well as in Los Angeles. “Tom loved it here so much that he considered becoming ‘Tom of London’ for a time and he drew a lot of inspiration from the city, so it’s fitting that his first solo exhibition in the UK is here,” Ahmad enthuses. There are some rare gems on show here. Alongside the drawings there are some unexpected linocut portraits, reference collages created on magazine clippings and rare photos from his secret 1950s mail-order business.

Last year the Tom of Finland Foundation was removed from Instagram, which was greeted with great dismay by the art world and the LBGTQ community alike. What amazes is how his work, even in the context of the Pornhub and everyday internet pornography, still has the ability to shock. “Tom’s work is about more than just sex – it’s about intimacy, tenderness, celebration and camaraderie which gives it a different potency to many of the images we see every day,” Ahmad notes. It is credit to his skill as an artist that the emotional resonance that he depicted and conveyed in his images is still as deeply liberating as it was decades ago.

Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation is at House of Illustration, London from March 6 – June 21, 2020.