Tom of Finland Hitches a Ride into the Mainstream

A retrospective in Helsinki cements the erotic artist’s legacy but fails to connect the dots of his complicated life story

BY Harry Tafoya in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 01 JUN 23

On the corner of a major thoroughfare in central Helsinki two national heroes clash. The first is an elevated bronze statue of a distinguished-looking general on horseback, staring nobly into the distance. Directly across from him, an enormous vinyl banner of a man’s muscled back and pert ass ripples softly in the wind. He is facing away from the viewer and toward a fast-approaching biker daddy, signalling with one outstretched thumb that he’d just love to hitch a ride. The former is the man voted ‘the Greatest Finn of All-Time’, the controversial military leader Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. The latter is a drawing by the artist Touko Laaksonen, blown up to announce a major retrospective of his work at Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Wisely, the institution has chosen to honour him under his professional moniker, which doubles as a reminder of his origins: Tom of Finland.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1977, pencil on paper. Courtesy: The Tom of Finland Foundation

Laaksonen’s triumphant homecoming – he spent much of his life abroad in America – is as fraught as it is overdue. Alongside death metal, Angry Birds, the Moomins and Marimekko, he is one of the country’s greatest cultural exports, having long since transcended the limits of a commercial illustrator – never mind a gay pornographer – to be celebrated as a national treasure.  Comprised of hundreds of works across a suite of galleries, ‘Tom of Finland: Bold Journey’ is the most complete legitimation of the artist’s work to date; the ultimate recognition of an outsider’s acceptance into the mainstream. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a man who, born in 1920, was criminalized twice over (as a homosexual and an erotic artist) for much of his life; an achievement that was underscored at the show’s opening when Durk Dehner, the artist’s business partner and long-time President of the Tom of Finland Foundation, was awarded the Order of the Lion by outgoing Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

‘Tom of Finland: Bold Journey’, exhibition view, 2023. Courtesy: The Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles, and Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki

At Kiasma, the artist’s life story is on display, but not in a way that is particularly easy to piece together. The exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically, around loose concepts like ‘dark room’, ‘road trip’ and ‘outdoors’, with a clunky VR tour of the Foundation thrown in at the end for good measure. This curatorial decision makes a certain amount of sense: Laaksonen did return to these subjects over and over again, but he mostly did so as set dressing for playing out his fantasies. Those fantasies weren’t particularly varied either. Apart from a shifting set of uniforms that telegraphed their masculinity, rendered with the holiness of an icon painter, the clothes the men took off were largely beside the point. His eternal subject remained: the exaltation of beautiful men and the near-infinite configurations in which two, three, or ten of them could engage in sex.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1962, pencil on paper. Courtesy: The Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles; Photograph: Don Ross

While the artist’s preoccupations are clear, what the viewer misses out on is sense of Laaksonen’s own history: not only how his fantasy life developed and how his hand evolved to facilitate it, but the scene he represented and the respect he commanded. He was a hard-working artist who perfected his style gradually rather than arriving fully formed, and he did so subject to shifting currents of censorship. After serving a tour of duty in the Winter and Continuation Wars, Laaksonen found lasting inspiration in the broad shoulders, severe waists and jackboots of the Wehrmacht officers he served alongside. Upon returning to civilian life, he began to submit work to Bob Mizer’s beefcake bible Physique Pictorial (1951–90) and quickly became its star contributor. With the magazine prohibited from displaying nude images until the late 1960s, Laaksonen became a mail artist out of necessity, circulating pictures through the post to paying subscribers. When restrictions relaxed, he parlayed a fanbase into a business and in turn became the most iconic artist associated with the leather scene.

Tom of Finland, Untitled,1982, pencil on paper. Courtesy: The Tom of Finland Foundation

Without a clear line connecting the dots, important dates appear and lose significance immediately. Works from distinct periods of his artistic development compete with each other on the same wall space, while loose images from narrative series are dispersed throughout the show out of sequence. His earliest work like Initiation into the Brotherhood (1946), is wholesome but crude, brimming with a latent sexuality smothered by clothes. The artist reached the height of his powers somewhere in the 1960s through to the mid 1970s, achieving a firmness of line and lightness of touch in his hard-bodied hunks in works like Cyclist and the Thief (1961), Pekka (1976), Circus (1975) and Kake (1968-1986). Some of this deftness was lost as he settled into his trademark style a decade later. His later work is notable for its defiance: here the penises are longest, the sex is most explicit, and any trace of shyness has burnt off into a bracing steeliness.

‘Tom of Finland: Bold Journey’, exhibition view, 2023. Courtesy: The Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles, and Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki

But to fixate too much on sexuality is to miss what’s most provocative about the spirit of Tom of Finland’s work, which is infinitely more radical than his subject matter. The true source of his power as an artist wasn’t in the horny scenes that he depicted but the vast horizons he suggested. The universe that he created was ideal, which is to say impossible, opening up a wider vision of a closeted world. Throughout his work homosexuals were reimagined as strong and beautiful and at home in their bodies, rather than pitiful, effete sissies – active seekers of pleasure rather than passive objects of scorn. In this respect he was foundational to visualizing gay men on the cusp of ‘gayness’ as a political identity, stepping out of the closet and into a world of possibility.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1963, pencil on paper. Courtesy: The Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles

The latent potential of Laaksonen’s work and its significance to gay rights more generally would ultimately give way to decades of political struggle. But in that time, a cultural rift would also grow between queers who clung to the promise of wide-open spaces, and those who sought security in a stable home. In this regard, Laaksonen is both fascinating and fraught, an outlaw figure gone mainstream,, whose vision of freedom was and still is at clear odds with his surroundings.

‘Tom of Finland: Bold Journey’ is on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, until 29 October.

Harry Tafoya is an arts and music writer based in New York City.