And it was to darkened places that gay people were referred, even the ones born late in the first half of the 1900s, since their orientation was criminalised and classified as a mental disorder. So Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), as he was named on his birth certificate, worked for a long time both under the radar, and several pseudonyms. The illustrator that would become world-famous under the name Tom of Finland was still called Touko in his homeland.
Early on he started to take and develop the photographic portraits that he himself called reference-pictures, in his own darkened simple home-studio and darkroom – having them developed elsewhere would be risking a prison sentence. This is where the story of Tom of Finland starts, and now in The Darkroom 31 July-8th November at Fotografiska Stockholm we meet a new unknown side of his work, 100 years after his birth.
“This never before shown treasure trove of images gives a deeper insight into how his skilfully drawn super-macho men were created. Each drawing could consist of several references from several different photographs. The drawings show the men always full of confidence, and always ready, since Tom of Finland’s art, for him, wasn’t about problematising, but about desire and the right to express it”, says Berndt Arell who curates the exhibition together with Fotografiska’s exhibition producer Jessica Jarl.
Jessica Jarl describes the work with the exhibition as an inspiring journey that’s given longing a face. The longing of showing your desire, of being acknowledged and not having to hide who you are. The exhibition includes unique original photographs, photographic collages, sketches and drawings: all of them created by Tom, where we get to see the entire process from photographs to sketches and finally the finished drawing.
“To Fotografiska, this is a brilliant example of how photography – besides standing on its own – often plays a part in many different kinds of creating. The story of The Darkroom – the first art exhibition where Tom of Finland’s photographs are also being shown – is in many ways a journey through time. From dark hidden rooms or parks, to open, well-lit salons. In some places, strong forces are now pushing this art – and the lifestyles it reflects – back into the darkness. One more reason to lift the importance of free art. And it feels right to have Tom’s voice be heard”, says Jessica Jarl.
This artist, who with his grunting desire and skill positively portrayed and drew excessively masculine, attractive, confident macho-men with extreme swelling muscles and giant dicks having sex with each other – dressed in all accessories imaginable within the uniform/leather/rubber gay porn fetish – thoroughly challenged his contemporary society. At the same time, he was regarded as the hottest trend among a small group of leather gays, where he spread happiness and horniness. All this in a time when homosexuality was criminalised and classified as a mental disorder, and often had to find its places anonymously in public spaces like parks and bathhouses. Tom of Finland has, in later interviews, in his older years, described this so-called “cruising”, and how the young Touko/Tom lay the foundation for his uniform-fetish by secretly meeting both German and Soviet soldiers in parks during World War II.
Many of the photographs exhibited in The Darkroom show happily posing hunks from Tom’s acquaintance, that functioned as inspiration and references for his drawings: drawings that got shown later in his career at somewhat hidden away galleries in London, Paris, and Amsterdam, and that spread like wildfire when many famous gay men wanted their portraits done by this unobtrusive Finn. Sometimes they were dressed in suits, sometimes nothing at all. One example is when Tom and Robert Mapplethorpe took each other’s pictures, that Tom later used to draw Mapplethorpe’s portrait.
“Without the photographs I don’t think there would have been a Tom of Finland. With the help of his friend Wiki, he took care to bring the photographs over to Tom’s House in Los Angeles – the museum/gallery that, besides his own work, exhibits other homoerotic art. He also seems to have been carefully removing the nudes we know were shot in his studio, so in all the remaining photographs the models are dressed”, says Berndt Arell, who already in the early 2000s created the first exhibition where the focus was on Tom of Finland as a visual artist rather than a pornographic illustrator.
The Darkroom shows us an artist that, without being very political himself, made a big impact on his contemporary society, with his drive to zestfully portray a homoerotic macho-dream. An artist who eventually reached world-wide fame and could leave the dark rooms to live in Los Angeles half of the year, where the leather gay lifestyle happened in the open – a result of the fight and societal change to decrease oppression towards LGBTQ-people that was happening parallel to his artistic life. That he would have contributed to this development was something he was both proud of and very humble about.
“He took the photographs in Los Angeles, with its great supply of attractive, well-built guys and the beautiful winter light, while the drawings more often came about in Finland, where he was still living during the summers. There is a closeness, in the images, to the ones portrayed – a sincerity in the eyes of both them and him. Two people meeting, a natural connection between them in confidence and warmth: something that doesn’t come across in the drawings, which are more anonymous, fetishist images. In 1990, the last year of his life, he was awarded the “Drawer of the Year” prize in Finland: that was a big moment, and a testament to the power of his art”, Arell concludes.
ARTIST PAGE/Facts about Tom of Finland:
Tom of Finland – Touko Laaksonen (born 1920, Sankt Karins, Finland; died 1991, Helsinki, Finland). World-famous sketch artist of homoerotic art where extremely masculine men with muscles as big as their erections, and self-confidence to spare, have sex with each other. He grew up in a Finland where homosexuality was punishable by law and classified a mental disorder far into the 1970s. Here, he secretly photographed his models as references for his drawings, which were to become cult in the underground gay culture. With increasing openness in the West, he could later live half the year in Los Angeles where gay culture was flourishing, and his art spread across the world.
He studied advertising in Helsinki during the late 1930s and the early 1940s, and piano and composition at the Sibelius Academy during the later 1940s. He also worked as a pianist for restaurants and theatres in Helsinki until 1958, as an art director at McCann Helsinki 1958-1973, and as a full-time artist from 1973.
Exhibitions until 1991: Solo exhibitions from 1973 in Hamburg, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Berlin, Helsinki.
Group exhibitions from 1978 in New York, Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cologne, UCLA Berkeley, Rutger State University, New Jersey, Helsinki.
Exhibitions (from 1991-): Galerie Pelin, Helsinki; Institute Culturel Finlandais, Paris 1999; Helsinki Art Museum 2006; Åbo, cultural capital of Europe 2011; Kulturhuset, Stockholm 2012; MOCA 2013, New York, Artists Space 2015; Helsinki Konsthall 2015; Fotografiska Tallinn, New York, and Stockholm 2020.
Public collections: Chicago Art Institute; Sankt Karins stad; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Kiasma, museum of contemporary art, Helsinki; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Leather Archives and Museum Group, Chicago; Wäinö Aaltonens art museum, Åbo.
The exhibition is produced by Fotografiska in collaboration with Tom of Finland Foundation.
Gallery name: Fotografiska Stockholm
Address: Stadsgårdshamnen 22, Stockholm
Opening hours: Mon-Sun 10:00 - 23:00
Open: 31.07.2020 - 29.11.2020