In the darkroom with homoerotic art hero Tom of Finland
At Fotografiska New York, the reference photography for Tom of Finland’s sexually empowered drawings are receiving overdue exposure
Last year, Tom of Finland turned 100. The trailblazing cultural icon (born Touko Laaksonen, 1920-1991), created work that simultaneously dropped jaws, squared up to the stagnant views of 20th-century society, and sang an ode to queer liberation.
In his heroic homoerotic drawings – starring hyper-masculine hunks, clad in uniforms or leather gear, all bulging muscles and members – he fearlessly confronted a system that denied freedom, legality, and basic rights to the gay community.
To mark the artist’s centenary, Fotografiska in collaboration with the Tom of Finland Foundation produced ‘The Darkroom’, a deep-dive into the artist’s life and work. Now on view at Fotografiska’s New York outpost, the show offers an intimate view of a little-known, and forcibly concealed, facet of Tom of Finland’s process: his reference photography.
‘The Darkroom’ consists of never-before-exhibited portraits captured as source material for Tom of Finland’s famed drawings. Among the photographs are portraits of friends and partners – including those Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe took of each other – that were confined to his home studio and darkroom for years, with much of the correspondence between the artist and his subjects destroyed due to the illegality of homosexuality at the time. To have practiced this process in plain sight would have risked a prison sentence.
‘Being aware of what society had denied homosexuals, Tom went about creating the archetype of masculine homosexuals who participate freely together in sex – a decree from Nature herself, says Durk Dehner, president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation, created in 1984. ‘Men knew instinctively that Tom drew with them in mind. Tom’s motives were nurturing, parental. He wanted men to grow up healthy and strong – in body and mind. He wanted to break the old cycles of self-doubt.’
Though the Tom of Finland Foundation’s original goal was to preserve the artist’s vast catalogue of work, it has since evolved into something of far greater magnitude. It now seeks to offer a haven for all erotic art against rampant discrimination. Today, the foundation is committed to educating the public on the cultural merits of erotic art and promoting more inclusive and tolerant attitudes towards sexuality.
And the show doesn’t end on the gallery walls. Another key feature can be found lining the hallway and bathroom of Fotografiska New York, a collaboration between Tom of Finland Foundation and Brooklyn-based wallpaper brand Flavor Paper.
The wallpaper was originally showcased in the 2019 Wallpaper* Handmade X exhibition with Michael Reynolds + Hoffman Creative. The team have now taken their Tom of Finland TAME and XXX designs up a gear, creating an exclusive version for the Fotografiska show in spicy red, available for sale at the museum’s physical and online shop.
The darkroom represents Tom of Finland’s photographic process. It is also a potent symbol for the confinement and persecution of LGBTQ+ people that many continue to face.
The show is a portrait of an artist who offered those who saw his work the confidence to live with pride, grab oppression by the horns, and walk, with zest, out from the darkroom. §