The Cult of Iconified Homosexuality

The Tom of Finland exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki is the largest to date to feature the gay hero, yet it misses the opportunity to contextualize his work as an artist.

Til venstre: Tom of Finland. Foto: Tom of Finland Foundation. Til høyre: Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1989.
Left: Tom of Finland. Photo: Tom of Finland Foundation. Right: Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1989.

As a phenomenon within Finnish popular culture, Tom of Finland has gone from secret icon of a forbidden subculture, to acknowledged cartoonist and illustrator, to slightly titillating object marketed to the general public in the form of household products such as stamps, duvet covers, potholders, and coffee. Tom’s creator, Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) and his life are the subject of a recent film, a musical is also in production. It’s not for nothing that Tom is known these days as the new Moomin.

The current presentation of Touko Laaksonen’s erotic images at Kunsthalle Helsinki expands the phenomenon into art discourse, where the images are lined up for review in a traditional exhibition format, curated as a retrospective art show.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1947.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1947.

There is an enormous number of anecdotes, stories, symbols, readings, and connotations that surround the phenomenon that is Tom of Finland and the different layers of meaning make a traditional analysis of the images impossible. Then again this may not be the ideal way to approach his work. But that doesn’t mean that it is enough to equate Tom of Finland with Touko Laaksonen, as tends to be the case in public discourse. Laaksonen’s own statements on his work are the main source, even for most attempts at deeper theoretical, historical, or aesthetic analysis.

From a Finnish perspective, the story of Tom of Finland lay hidden for a long time and those who had heard of him were certain the pseudonym didn’t actually have anything to do with their nation. When Ilppo Pohjola made the first Tom of Finland documentary in 1991, Laaksonen emerged as an aging gentleman, living at the corner of Lönnrotsgatan and Fredriksgatan in Helsinki, still busy drawing his own and others’ erotic fantasies. He passed away at 71 from lung emphysema. Finnish pop culture cognoscenti gave him the Puupää award in 1990, acknowledging his work as a prominent cartoonist. The award was accompanied by an exhibition at the MUU gallery.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1946.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1946.

The exhibition at the Kunsthalle describes Laaksonen’s life story room by room, along with the various phases of his production up to the last decades of his life when he was well established, especially within gay American culture, but also in a broader international sense. The creation of the Tom of Finland Foundation in 1984 in collaboration with Durk Dehner made it possible to control the distribution and archiving of Laaksonen’s work. Since then the foundation, based in Los Angeles, has been working to spread information about Tom of Finland, as well as tolerance and acknowledgement of the importance of erotic art.

The reception of Tom of Finland’s imagery in Finland is closely tied to the law against deviant sexual behavior that remained in place until quite recently. While Sweden decriminalized homosexuality as early as 1944, that did not happen in Finland until 1971. Homosexuality remained classified as a disease until 1981 and it was not until 1999 that the paragraph prohibiting incitement to homosexual behavior was stricken from Finnish law. This lends Laaksonen’s images a strong historical draw and affirms their importance as social documents, both in terms of their design and existence.

Tom of Finland Untitled, ca. 1966.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, ca. 1966.

The interesting thing about the exhibition’s historical narrative is to see how Laaksonen developed his imagery partly in relation to himself, partly in relation to the various strata of his surroundings. Evidence of his personal development spans student essays in Åbo, studies at an advertising school, fighting the Soviet Union in World War II – which was formative in terms of sexual experience, studies at the Sibelius Academy, a 28-year relationship with Veli Mäkinen, and a professional life spent in advertising.

Laaksonen came in contact with American gay culture in 1953 through Physique Pictorial – an erotic magazine thinly veiled as a bodybuilding journal. This was where he first used the pseudonym in order to protect his private life. Once this collaboration had been established, he adapted his images to an American audience, even though some Finnish connotations remain in clichéd renditions of nature and abbreviated sauna scenes.

A series of showcases containing sketches and cut-outs from advertising journals and daily papers bear witness to Laaksonen navigating the space between the permitted and the criminalized within visual culture. His earliest drawings were distributed in small Xeroxed editions passed along from hand to hand. The increasingly visual aspect of the magazine world provided him with material as he developed models and archetypes, collages and sketches that are now regarded as art in their own right in the collection of 3-4000 archived works. Here news footage, field photography, and advertising images are used as starting points for the figures, situations, and encounters that take place between Tom’s men.

Tom of Finland Untitled, ca. 1968.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, ca. 1968.

Laaksonen is generally regarded as an incredibly skilled illustrator who worked in pencil, Indian ink, and even gouache. The desire to analyze the images using concepts from established art historical discourse outstrips the desire to look at the direct influence advertising had on him in terms of hyperrealism, graphic illustration, rhetorical gestures and elements, as well as strategically aimed focus points. After all, these images are about consumption. The product is male sexuality and the consumer is the man, starved for physical outlets and exciting fantasies. In interviews Laaksonen doesn’t sidestep questions about using the aesthetically grotesque, the exaggerated, and a focus on caricatured situations, and last but not least increasingly large male members as rhetorical techniques.

The exhibition’s curator, Stefan Kalmár from Artist Space in New York, stresses the central role of the gaze in these drawings. The men, who in many ways can be seen as one and the same, have a teasing look and almost always an inviting smile on their face. Here we see reflected both their creator’s desire for connection, as well as the function of the advertising image at play. Repetition is used throughout and generally there are few variations in the execution of the images, or in their theme.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1976. Foto: Jean Vong.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1976. Photo: Jean Vong.

No one would dispute the importance of Tom of Finland for generations of men searching for their sexual identity in surroundings that were often hostile and reluctant. There are plenty of anecdotes about the liberating encounter with Tom’s depictions of a positive, self-affirming homosexual man, who is not ashamed of his self-indulgence. Thus the images serve the double function as a means for excitement and as liberation. This is more than can be said of the imagery of porn in general and it serves to give Laaksonen’s images multifaceted layers and functions.

The selection at Kunsthalle Helsinki is one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Touko Laaksonen’s production so far. Yet it is clearly selectively curated. The more violent fantasies aren’t being presented to the general Finnish public. And obviously the lust and exuberance that Tom of Finland symbolizes came to an abrupt end with the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

This is where the Moomin aspect breaks through and continues from the exhibition halls down to the lobby. There the visitors can photograph themselves in the sheets and then buy a package of coffee in the museum store. This way, even those who don’t get an immediate kick out images of anal penetration and absurdly sized penises can feel involved and generally liberated and unprejudiced.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1980.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1980.

Showing Tom of Finland’s visual influence and imagery by presenting Touko Laaksonen’s production in a retrospective art exhibition gives the endeavor an odd bent. The emphasis here is on an artist with a cult following, a life’s work the value of which obviously should not be diminished, but whose effect and cultural and historical impact is lost in this format.

Truly interesting layers could be unearthed through a critical differentiation of the representation of sexuality and desire, not in a generalized and isolated way, but rather precisely articulated and seen from a specific perspective during a particular historical era in specific subcultures and so on. The exhibition’s presentation of Laaksonen’s work makes a once forbidden male culture appear privileged, through personifying him as a hero. Not as the decorated war hero that he was in the Finnish army, but as the celebrated sex hero of gay men everywhere, now waiting to be acknowledged by everyone.