Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation review

Art, Drawing and illustration
3 out of 5 stars
Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation review
Untitled, 1974 © Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Like an (even more) homoerotic version of Batman, Touko Laaksonen lived a double life. By day, he was a pen-pusher at an advertising agency in Helsinki. By night, he was ‘Tom of Finland’, who sketched handsomely uniformed, fantastically muscled men for a thirsty audience of American fans.

House of Illustration’s one-room exhibition restores a hint of sleaze to this once-hidden collection of dirty pics; they’re set against mirrored walls and larger-than-life murals of Tom of Finland’s best-loved character, Kake, butch in black leather.

Laaksonen’s story is a neat microcosm of the twentieth century’s evolving attitudes to gay sexuality. When serving in the Finnish army during WWII, he had to mask any frisson he felt at being surrounded by men in uniform. In the ’50s, his art was published in softcore gay erotica publications, disguised as men’s fitness magazines to evade censors. When the newly permissive ’70s arrived, he could quit the day job and create whole comics of photorealistic sex scenes. By the ’90s, he was the beloved granddaddy of an out-and-proud leather scene, and father of a hugely influential new gay aesthetic.

He put mid-century tropes of masculinity in a blender and came up with something new and seductively marketable: an ad campaign for joyful male homosexuality in a homophobic world. His men have Ken-doll jawlines, superhero bodies, the puppyish smiles of Disney princes. Many wear Nazi-inspired uniforms (Finland fought alongside Germany in WWII). I guess you could argue that the sexy-Nazi thing is an act of subversion. The gay male gaze feminises authority figures, softening their harshness into bulging curves and willing smiles. Instead of defying uniformed officers, Laaksonen’s characters submit to violence – and dare to enjoy it. One drawing zooms in on a man’s face as he licks the boots of unseen officers.

But as in most advertising, there’s a lot that goes unsaid. Tom of Finland’s style prizes a narrow, Eurocentric kind of male beauty, and this small exhibition doesn’t have room to subvert it, or dig into the darker sides of Laaksonen’s story. Instead, it’s a joyful initiation into the slick, seductive world of a gay art pioneer.

By: Alice Savile

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