In The Darkroom: Exploring Tom of Finland's Enduring Influence
"Whenever I was depressed or disgusted, I would feel him, that spirit inside, urging me back to living, back to drawing, I believe there is a lot to the world that can’t be seen or touched, and if you turn away from that — especially if you are an artist — you are avoiding an important part of life, maybe the very heart of it."
- Tom of Finland
Tom of Finland aka Touko Laaksonen. Collage credit to Worldcrunch.
Museums, be it local or international, are considered the arbiters of culture, keepers of history, and especially systems of representation. As an extension of such, exhibitions have become increasingly important to engage with many existing intersections of identity and to, in good faith, seek to advance conversations surrounding LGBTQ2+ iconography and representation in particular.
Fotografiska My first grasp with queerness in the field of Museum Studies was with specific individuals, both historical and contemporary: theorists like Judith Butler and artists such as Keith Haring, Mickalene Thomas, Catherine Opie, and my personal favourite, bisexual painter Tamara de Lempicka (I have a tattoo inspired by her work). The ArQuives, which was established to aid in the recovery and preservation of Canadian LGBTQ2+ histories, has also been a key window into queer museological knowledge, agency, and identities. However, an artist I’ve always found to be equal parts seductive and intriguing throughout my experience as a Master of Museum Studies student is Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen, 1920-1991). Though fairly characterized as graphic, provocative, and pornographic through his tangible association with kink and eroticism, his work is a refreshing reprieve from the puritanical Western art often kept by mainstream museums. Highly stylized and recognizable by muscled bodies, bulging appendages, leather fetish gear, and uniforms inspired by blue-collar workers and military men, Tom of Finland occupies a distinct, subversive space in the queer visual culture canon. As someone with both an academic and personal interest in portraiture, I was even more enthralled with The Darkroom, a current exhibition (located in New York City, from April 30-August 20, 2021) that serves as an intimate look into the prolific artistry of Tom of Finland, curated by Berndt Arell of Fotografiska in collaboration with the Tom of Finland Foundation. As Pride 2021 celebrations looked a little different this year, The Darkroom is a fascinating way to engage with Tom of Finland’s 100 year legacy of queer art and never-before-seen, boundary-pushing, sexually powerful, homoerotic photographic portraits that served as references for his drawings. Oppressed by the persecution of queerness in his native Finland, Laaksonen clandestinely photographed his muses/models as references for his drawings. They were kept under the cover of darkness and would become highly-coveted works in underground gay subcultures and communities. With the increasing openness found in the West, he would spend time in Los Angeles, where both freedom and his art were able to flourish. There, he would draw inspiration from American bodybuilding and develop a burgeoning interest in depicting Black men (some of his later illustrations would feature Black men and interracial sex scenes). This inclusion is doubly interesting, if not slightly problematic: Laaksonen had the general tendency to depict cis, white men, and more and more academics have touched on the hypermasculinization/hypersexualization and presence of Black men in visual culture. Though, it can be noted that, to some, he had helped to increase the visibility of "black gay male subjectivity" towards the culmination of the 20th century, the end of his career, to which critics characterize this period as his most overtly political. With Tom of Finland, all men were created equal.
Untitled, 1984 (Val Martin); Untitled, 1986; Untitled, 1986 (above); Untitled, 1986 (below). Tom of Finland Permanent Collection A statement from exhibition producer Jessica Jarl says, “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.” The very premise of this exhibition is born out of the sexually repressive environment of 1950s Finland. Laaksonen set up a darkroom in a closet of his home in Helsinki to develop the photographs he took. Not only racy and homoerotic, they were outlawed. The Darkroom displays his portraits on black walls with red accents; they are the star of the show, featuring hyper-masculine hunks, clad in uniforms or leather gear, all distended muscles and members. They act to fearlessly confront a system that even today continues to deny freedoms, legality, and basic rights to queer, gay, and trans communities — bringing to light the current relevancy of their struggle for liberation.
Tom of Finland: 'The Darkroom." Wallpaper
Even during the height of the AIDS crisis, Laaksonen continued to create positive images of gay culture, and in 1987, made a now-famous drawing encouraging the practice of safe sex. The title of the exhibition The Darkroom just feels so apt. To end off, here is a quote by longtime Whitney Museum curator Richard D. Marshall (Quoted in Ferguson, 2019) that illustrates the impact and significance of not only Tom of Finland's work, but also of the very concept of The Darkroom:
“Tom of Finland emerged in the 1950s to deliver us from the repressive, fearful, and disguised sexuality of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tom made the idealized male beauty of the Greek gods become contemporary, real living gods, with no judgmental distinction between active and passive sexual roles. Tom made the artificial Roman breastplate into lively skin and muscle; Tom made Christian sado-masochism positive, desirable, and enviable; Tom made Michelangelo’s saints naked and aggressive; Tom brought honest, ribald, consensual, enjoyable, and delirious male sexuality back into twentieth century art. (1997, p. 252)”
Suffice to say, as travel restrictions begin to lessen, I recommend visiting this exhibition if you’re interested in studies and imagery of sex positivity, masculinity, countering heteronormativity, queer culture, and unapologetic art. If you find yourself in New York City, go see for yourself.
Sources Referenced and Further Reading: Alan Sinfield (2004). On Sexuality and Power. Columbia University Press, https://doi.org/10.7312/sinf13408. Leena-Maija Rossi (2019). From arousing drawings to art to behold: Tom of Finland’s long and winding road to the art world, Porn Studies, 6:4, 459-463, DOI: 10.1080/23268743.2019.1580450 Michael Ferguson (2019) Tom of Finland, Journal of Homosexuality, 66:6, 857-862, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2018.1514206 Nicholas Boston (2021). The Photography of Tom of Finland. Gay City News, https://www.gaycitynews.com/tom-of-finland-photography-art/. Thomson Reuters Institute (2020). Out of the Shadows: Remembering ‘Tom of Finland,’ https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en-us/posts/legal/tom-of-finland/.