Tuesday 10th March

| BY Paul Toner

Ten’s to See: ‘Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation’ at The House of Illustration

Untitled, from the ‘Sailor and the Cyclist’ series, 1963
© Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection

When entering Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation at The House of Illustration in London, you’re greeted by the words of the man himself. “My aim is not to create an ideal, but to draw beautiful men who love each other and are proud of it,” the sign reads. He wanted to see if he could transform the way gay men thought of themselves,” expresses Durk Dehner, co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation, who is taking us on a guided tour of the first UK public exhibition dedicated to the late king of homoerotic art – still dressed in his full leather get-up from our party the night before. It’s surprising it has taken this long for the Tom of Finland Foundation to be celebrated in such an impressive display of works. Especially since the Finnish first-class stamps celebrating the artist were ordered to 150 countries internationally back in 2014. The exhibition holds over 70 works created between the 1960s to the 1980s, with 20 of these works never before seen by the viewing public. “It’s well overdue,” ads Dehner.

Tom of Finland’s work is instantly recognisable. His illustrations are hot, passionate and potently queer. His boys come with the severest bone structures; their chests chiseled and hairy; their bulges rock solid and in your face. They are often sailors, police officers, leather boys – caught in the act with their limbs interlocked, smiling from ear to ear. The universe Finland created is one where men are free to make love to one another, where blowjobs are celebrated and orgies are of a regular occurrence. Yet this land of the free couldn’t be further away from reality.

Untitled, 1981 © Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection

Working as an art director by day, Finland, whose real name was Touko Valio Laaksonen, would spend his evenings sketching, photo developing and responding to his fans who wrote from all corners of the globe. He would send homoerotic art across the world in envelopes so small that it was illegal for postal services to interrogate the contents inside. Such brazenly homoerotic work was being produced long before homosexuality and male nudity was decriminalised. Finland feared for the safety of his fans so much that before he died in 1991, he destroyed all the details of each and every one of his correspondents, Dehner explains.

Though this exhibition isn’t doom and gloom – it’s quite the opposite. The fine specimens in Finland’s world are joyous, full of life. “It was inspiring to young homosexuals at the time,” says Dehner. For young gay boys coming to terms with their sexuality, when discovering such illustrations, they “intuitively knew it was for them.” Dehner’s curation was intended to spotlight the “breadth of mediums,” Finland worked with. A 1974 illustration comes drenched in reds and blues, akin more to a fashion sketch than something you could pleasure yourself over. Yellow and blue marker pens are used on works that don’t look distinctly Finland at all. One portrait, created using pastels in 1967, comes from the artist’s own personal collection, where the Tom Finland Foundation recently discovered the original newspaper clipping the piece was inspired by.

Untitled, from ‘The Tattooed Sailor’ series, 1962
© Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection

Many of the works on display are preliminary, giving a rare insight into the artist’s deft drawing ability; how he worked with the pencil. One of such is of Dehner himself, a birthday gift given by the artist in 1980. Whilst the figures in the background are skeletal in their unfinished nature, Finland’s immense attention to detail on Dehner’s portrait is remarkable. “He captured my soul,” his subject says. One of Dehner’s past lovers is also featured, a miniature portrait Finland was actually going to discard after accidentally spoiling it with globs of fixative. With Dehner’s persuasion, Finland held onto the piece and after the treatment of a conservator, it is on display for the first time.

Rareties aside, expect to see some of Finland’s most recognisable works as well. The legendary Kake comics sit alongside the emblem the artist completed for Tom’s Saloon, the infamous fetish club in Hamburg, Germany. Expect to see works of men mid-wrestle also, which was actually the only legal way to demonstrate physical contact between men before homosexuality was decriminalised. Cased in glass cabinets are a selection of Physique Pictorial magazines dating back to 1957 – his first published works where the Tom of Finland pseudonym was originally given to the artist.

Untitled, 1974 © Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection

Finland’s love of London is interwoven throughout – the artist was integral to the leather scene that blossomed to the city throughout the 1960s and wanted to relocate to the city and rename himself Tom of London but feared invasive UK postal services. Finland’s dedication to spotlighting interracial homosexual relationships, seen within the exhibition, was quite taboo in America yet had a more significant market in Britain. “He wanted to show men loving way in the most overt way,” says Dehner. “There is no question that these were homosexuals.” Such works feel as pivotal as they were when first sketched onto paper, and although the term gay icon is thrown around loosely these days – saved for anyone from the newest pop star on the block to the lead in the latest Netflix series – there are few and far between deserving of such title as much as Mr. Tom of Finland is.

‘Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation’ is open at The House of Illustration until June 21st. 


Untitled, 1985 © Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection