One of Finland’s most famous artists, Touko Laaksonen, is being celebrated in London with the UK’s first public solo show dedicated to the gay cultural icon Tom of Finland.
The new exhibition ‘Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation’ opened this weekend and brings together 40 works on paper which were produced from the 1960s to the 1980s – both before and after homosexuality was decriminalised in much of Europe and the USA.
Most of the pieces, on loan from the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, are being exhibited in public for the first time.
“Tom of Finland transformed his original perception of male sexuality and desire into a vital art that spoke to suppressed queer communities around the world and revolutionised the image of gay men in popular culture” says exhibit curator Olivia Ahmad.
Who was Tom of Finland?
Touko Laaksonen was born in Kaarina 100 years ago in 1920, and working at an advertising agency in Helsinki he would draw his homoerotic fantasies at night.
His work was first distributed in the US through bodybuilding magazines and he signed them with the pseudonym ‘Tom’ to avoid censure and arrest.
Laaksonen said he wanted to create an imagine of gay masculinity that ran counter to the prevailing sentiment: that homosexual men were foppish, weak or girly. So he drew powerful characters like policemen and soldiers, or lumberjacks from his homeland. The men were partially or wholly undressed with prominent sexual characteristics, and were an instant hit when they were published in ‘Physique Pictorial’ magazine in America.
Tom’s drawings didn’t just present homoerotic scenes – they fetishized the uniforms of the military and law enforcement establishment, subverting the image of these homophobic institutions in a direct challenge to the prejudices of the time.
Some of his art is controversial as he first developed his distinctive style during Finland’s Continuation War (1941-1944) when German troops were stationed in Helsinki.
Much enamoured with the German military uniforms, Laaksonen enjoyed trysts with the soldiers and incorporated design details from their uniforms reflected in his work: peaked caps, shiny thigh-high leather jackboots, eagle insignias.
With the benefit of historical hindsight, there would seem to be a disconnect between an artist eroticising Nazi soldiers as part of a gay fetish, and the knowledge he must certainly have had about tens of thousands of gay German men arrested and imprisoned or sent to concentration camps.
However, his unabashed and unapologetic depictions of homosexuality shaped gay identity, inspired LGBTQ+ rights campaigners and invigorated popular culture – influencing the aesthetics of artists as diverse as Freddie Mercury, Robert Mapplethorpe and John Paul Gaultier.
“We are delighted to be showing Tom of Finland’s iconic and important work to the UK public, introducing audiences in London to Tom’s mastery of multiple mediums spanning his lengthy artistic career” says Tom of Finland Foundation co-founder Durk Dehner.
The new exhibit runs until the end of June, and is supported by the Finnish Institute in London.
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