© 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
100 YEARS OF TOM OF FINLAND – THE CENTURY EXHIBITION ‘LOVE & LIBERATION’ London 2020 By Ben Youdan
When you think of the name “Tom of Finland”, for most, a wild and erotic array of images come to mind. An unattainable but aspirational image of male beauty and perfection combined with a defiant self-assured abandon that is intensely appealing to our sensual nature. His work is the very epitome of the leather archetype and it isn’t even beyond the realms of fantasy to compare his skill in depicting the male form with Michelangelo.
Although Tom didn’t invent the leather archetype, he was present at its conception and he is certainly responsible for crystallising it in the imagination of generations of leather lovers. It has become deeply ingrained in the psyche of popular culture beyond the leather community or the niche of the art world. The art critic Edward Lucie-Smith wrote “Tom altered the way gay men thought about themselves. He also changed the way in which non-gay people thought about male homosexuals.”
For those who don’t know, Touko Valio Laarksonan (1920-1991) was a Finnish artist who worked under the pseudonym “Tom of Finland” creating his “Filthy little drawings” at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and explicit queer representation in popular culture was non-existent.
© Ben Youdan
My relationship with Tom began when I was a young teenager and had a moment of epiphany when I discovered his work through the stunning Taschen books and the documentary “Daddy and the Muscle Academy.” This was the first rung on the ladder to an adulthood of exploration of kink, leather and a lifelong adoration of the work of Tom of Finland. This type of epiphany is by no means unique and I hear similar stories from dozens and dozens of leathermen and kinksters.
Cut to twenty odd years later and I find myself a former artist in residence at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, connected on a professional and personal level. I was also privileged enough to attend the opening of the exhibition at the House of Illustration in London earlier this year (sadly indefinitely postponed, and we all know why).
Some people have reported that this is the first solo exhibition of his work in the U.K. This is, in fact incorrect as there was a show in Liverpool in 2001 and another last year in Kendal in the Lake District. However, it is the first show in the capital and seems crazy it has taken until now for it to be realised. It is hugely significant as it is a mainstream gallery championing the work of a queer fetish artist in a non-queer space. This is a testament to the visionary and progressive nature of the House of Illustration.
As a side note, the launch party was great – fun packed with a variety of art glitterati and a smattering of leather folk sipping on Tom of Finland vodka, of course. There can’t be many artists that wold bring together Peter Tatchell and the Cock Destroyers!
© 1974 – 2020 Tom of Finland Foundation
The exhibition space itself has a wide variety of work encompassing almost all of Tom’s career and is beautifully conceived and executed there are 40 images in total. Many of the works have never been seen before and there are also some of his preliminary studies that give a unique insight into his artistic process. It’s fascinating to see finished work alongside preliminary sketches, collage and photography that Tom used as inspiration. A unique insight into how these fantasy visions have been constructed from reality.
One great touch is that you enter the space through a chainmail curtain emblazoned with The TOM moniker that echoes the backroom of many a Soho book shop of the 1980s and emphasises that you are entering a separate and illicit space. This creates a tingle of anticipation as you step through the looking glass.
On entering, you are immersed in Tom’s fantasy vision of a kinky queer utopia where the figures are unashamed and joyous. Tom is giving us permission to be ourselves and most importantly to not feel ashamed of our true nature. Often the figures are engaged in sexual play in the open air which is a powerful visual metaphor and an intoxicating experience. As Holly Johnson put it “The liberating effect of Tom’s men smiling in the bright light of day cannot be underestimated.”
This particular exhibition would be a fantastic introduction to Tom’s work for someone who had never seen it before and a potential gateway drug to a lifetime of pleasure. Some people have said that the cock count was disappointingly low but as Tom himself stated “There is nothing more erotic than a fully dressed man.”
The message of freedom and acceptance inherent within these artworks has never been more relevant than today. It goes without saying the erotic possibilities are timelesss and liberation can be achieved through the knowledge that we can all be Tom’s men.
Due to the Corona crisis, the exhibition is currently closed.
For more information: https://www.houseofillustration.org.uk