For a long time, presenting homoerotic (or homosexual) desire in arts was an extreme taboo. The artists interested in this subject were most often gay men themselves, positioned at the margins of society along with other members of the queer community. Presenting their art openly would cause great controversy, especially if the depictions were too explicit.
That is why the Finish artist Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, operated in the privacy of his home until his fantasy world wasn’t published in the American underground magazines during the 1950s and 1960s. Saturated with uncontrollable desire, the physical frenzy centered on hyper-masculine representations, the drawings of Tom of Finland gained enormous attention in the early 1970s, after the Stonewall riots and consolidation of the LGBT movement around the States, and influenced the rise of leather culture and fetishism.
His spot in the gay Hall of fame is really special, but in the art world as well. That is why House of Illustration decided to organize the first public solo show of Tom of Finland in the UK marking the centenary of the artist’s birth and the intercultural impact of his homoerotic visions had on gay communities in Europe and North America.
Tom, the first pseudonym used by Laaksonen, an art director at an advertising agency by day, started delivering outstanding drawings of men encountering each other in electrifying fashion pursued by a desire for the U.S. bodybuilding magazines. His men are no ordinary guys: not only they are hyper-masculine, but they also most often wear uniforms (military, marine, police, etc.) expressing the ultimate gay fetishes.
By appropriating the imagery of law and order representatives, Tom of Finland subversively criticized systematic homophobia found in the state institutions. Such radical and blatant depictions practically shaped the gay identity and effected popular culture and the practices of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Freddie Mercury, and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
The installment will include forty works on paper produced in between the 1960s to the 1980s (from the time homosexuality was illegal to the time when homosexuality was decriminalized in many European countries and the U.S.), rare linocuts produced in very limited editions, as well as illustrations from his iconic Kake comics.
The majority of these works are loaned from The Tom of Finland Foundation and some of them will be displayed in public space for the first time ever.
The upcoming exhibition is organized in collaboration with Tom of Finland Foundation and the Finnish Institute in London, and curated by House of Illustration curator Olivia Ahmad who emphasized Tom’s significance in a brief statement:
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 revolutionized the image of gay men in popular culture. Tom rejected the discrimination and conservative conventions of his time to celebrate love, intimacy, and pleasure, and it’s no surprise that his message continues to resonate. We are extremely proud to present this overdue show of his work in the UK here at House of Illustration.
Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation will be on display at the House of Illustration in London from 6 March until 21 June 2020.
Featured image: Tom of Finland - Untitled, 1985 © Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection.