Copyright: Fotografiska Tallinn & Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), world famous sketch artist of homoerotic art depicted extremely masculine men with muscles as big as their erection, and self-confidence to spare. However, not too many people know that Tom of Finland took photographs of his friends and partners to use as inspiration for his drawings. The exhibition “The Darkroom” opens the unknown side of Tom of Finland’s art – Fotografiska Tallinn presents the premiere of his drawings displayed together with his photography.
Tom of Finland was an 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 bath houses. For hiding his identity Touko Laaksonen worked for years under various psedonyms.
Early on he started to take and develop the photographical 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. ”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”, said curator Berndt Arell.
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 and well-lit salons. Incidentally, this is where the name of the exhibition comes from.
Berndt Arell 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.
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, a photographer and artist from the United States of America, 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”, said 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. This year it’s 100 years since Tom of Finland was born and the exhibition serves as the homage to the unknown aspect of his creation.
Tom of Finland (1920-1991), born as Touko Laaksonen, 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, that 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. In 1990, a year before his death, 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.
“The Darkroom” is open in Fotografiska Tallinn from February 21st till April 19th. The opening of the exhibition is celebrated with two legendary parties brought together just for one night: Tallinn’s Mutant Disco and London-born free spirited Horse Meat Disco.