Leevi Haapala, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
22 August, 2023
Tom of Finland is renowned for his signature style and iconic drawings of modern, liberated gay men. In April 2023, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma / Finnish National Gallery opened its exhibition ‘Bold Journey’, along with an accompanying publication, highlighting the artist’s long artistic career and impact on 20th-century visual culture, particularly on iconic representations of hypermasculinity. Driven by pleasure – that of the artist, the figures in the drawings, and the audience – Tom of Finland’s imagination is embedded in shifting identities and role-play.
Nowadays, Tom of Finland, aka Touko Laaksonen (1920–91), justifiably carries the epithet of ‘Finland’s most internationally famous artist’. However, from the 1950s to the 1970s, he was known in Helsinki only as Touko Laaksonen, a talented graphic artist, working as an advertising executive at McCann Erickson, and a musician who had studied at the Sibelius Academy. It was only late in his life, while shuttling between Helsinki and Los Angeles, that he began appearing in public as the famed gay icon Tom of Finland and not until the early 1990s onwards that he started to gain recognition, both in Finland and elsewhere, explicitly as an artist rather than just a homoerotic illustrator. California’s balmy weather, the abundance of male models, and the Tom House leatherman community offered Tom a welcoming winter sanctuary, while in summer he returned to work in the peace, privacy and natural beauty of his homeland.
It was not until the very end of his career that Tom finally gained artistic recognition in his homeland. His memorial retrospective was held at Galerie Pelin in Helsinki in 1992. At the time, the Museum of Contemporary Art acquired two drawings from that show, which paved the way to Tom’s public acceptance, as did Ilppo Pohjola’s documentary film Daddy and the Muscle Academy the previous year. Little by little, Tom progressed from ‘gay artist’ to ‘artist’ until finally wider audiences were ready to call him their own.
Until the 1990s, the Finnish public had seen Tom’s drawings mostly only in comics exhibitions within the arts scene. In 1990, he received the Puupäähattu Award for Finnish Comics Artists, and later that year his drawings were featured in a comics exhibition organised by the Artists’ Association MUU. In its special ‘sex’ issue, the Finnish magazine Image (3/1990) published an extensive illustrated article, quoting an interview published earlier that year in Prätkäposti (Biker Mail). From October to December 1991, original illustrations from the Kake and Mike comic strips series were presented in Ruutujen aika. Suomen Sarjakuvaseuran kaksi vuosikymmentä (Frames: Two Decades of the Finnish Comics Society) at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki. Also that year, two of Tom’s drawings appeared as examples of Finnish underground comics in Koko hajanainen kuva. Suomalaisen taiteen 80-luku (The Whole Fragmentary Picture: Finnish Art in the Eighties), a 1991 book by Marja-Terttu Kivirinta and Leena-Maija Rossi, designed by Ilppo Pohjola.
Major public recognition followed in 1992, after the Finnish publishing house Otava published the extensive biography, written by F. Valentine Hooven III, Tom of Finland – Elämäkerta (Biography, translated into Finnish by Eeva-Liisa Jaakkola). In 2017, it was republished by another Finnish publishing house, Like, with a new foreword and subtitled Marginaalista maailmanmaineeseen (‘From the Margins to World Fame’). In the original biography, Tom is referred to only by his pseudonym, never by his real name. In a letter to his friend, written from Laakso hospital in 1991, Tom aired his thoughts on the flurry of fame that came to him in the twilight of his career:
That same scribbler Valentine Hooven was here for the second time around midsummer. He is writing my biography, which will be published in Finnish by OTAVA in the New Year. A video about me will be released around the same time. They also want to organise a ‘real art exhibition’ of my drawings in Helsinki – suddenly everyone is going wild about me. How times have changed! Or have they?
– Tom of Finland’s letter to his friend in Helsinki, 9 July 1991
Archival findings and cultivating our national artist’s legacy
One key resource for the Kiasma exhibition was an archive that was donated in 2001, with additional material added in 2005, to the Finnish National Gallery’s Archival Collections by one of Touko Laaksonen’s long-time friends, who wished to remain anonymous. The archive contains letters, cards, newspaper clippings, photos, videos, magazines, books and calendars. A curator of the Archival Collections, Veikko Pakkanen, reminded me in person about this specific archive before retiring. To our delight, the current exhibition’s curatorial team – myself, chief curator João Laia and project manager Patrik Nyberg – came across four original works of art among this large volume of material. The drawings are now in the process of being added to the art collection, so that there will be 13 Tom of Finland drawings held by the Finnish National Gallery. We are also still confirming the authenticity of two more photographic collages from this archive, to be authorised by the Tom of Finland Foundation.
This important change in the status of archival material is part of the recognition of Tom of Finland’s originals as one entity within the art collection. Already in the winter of 2022, five of the artist’s drawings, which for several years had been on long-term loan from the HIV Foundation Finland, were purchased and added to the National Gallery’s collections at Kiasma. It is of key importance that finally Tom of Finland’s artworks are recognised and respected and not seen as comics or categorised as archival documents; that they belong to the core contemporary art collection at the Finnish National Gallery, and that he is our national artist. In this way these works become more easily accessible to scholars, curators and to the multiple audiences of our online collections and our forthcoming exhibitions. This final change in his artistic legacy was also recognised in the recent Frieze art review about the exhibition and encapsulated in its title ‘Tom of Finland Hitches a Ride into the Mainstream’, by Harry Tafoya.
Scholarly queer re-recognitions
In this issue of FNG Research we republish one of the new articles in Bold Journey, which was published together with Parvs Publishing: ’Boys will be boys? – Some Notes on Tom of Finland’, written by adjunct curator at Tate and Contributing Editor for Frieze Alvin Li. In his article Li emphasises the notion of Tom of Finland’s legacy for new generations. Li was born in 1993, two years after Tom passed away, and tries to recall the moment when he most likely first encountered Tom of Finland’s drawings – which were in the form of digital reproductions on Tumblr. Tom’s imagery can be also criticised on the basis of the images’ ‘(over)performance of homomasculinity’ or their commercial merchandise potential. There has also been increasing recognition of the widening scope of sexualities since the early 1990s. Li summarises both the progress of feminist and queer scholarly work undertaken so far but also the potentiality of the bodily truth of gay desire in Tom of Finland’s drawings. Parallel realities among LGBTIQ+ communities and generations can find different ways and reasons to identify with his imagery or at least to recognise the value of his emancipatory impact and human rights work among minorities over the decades.
Alongside the Tom of Finland exhibition at Kiasma is a new collection display, ‘Dreamy’, guest-curated by Max Hannus, which focusses on queer perspectives on the Kiasma collections at the Finnish National Gallery. In their article ‘Entry to a Land that Is Not’, Hannus gives curatorial insights about the process of getting to know our collections from this point of view. For some years now, we have been keeping three-option statistics on the gender of artists. In their essay, Hannus likes to find a specific time category named as queer time as a key to understanding the thematics of the show and as a point of entry into the collections: “‘Dreamy’ is an exhibition where dreams, fantasies, nightmares, visions, and scenes are seen as signs of queerness existing in the world and of the potential for sharing, finding common ground. How has art documented queer time over time? And how can we, as viewers of art, find entry to something we couldn’t even dream of? Queer time opposes itself to the linear time of order. It is outside chronology, another reality and parallel to straight time.’
During the Covid-19 pandemic Kiasma was celebrating 30 years of collecting contemporary art for the Finnish National Gallery’s Collection and published a collection book entitled The Many Forms of Contemporary Art. For that book I researched Kiasma’s international collection and how it has been formed over the years. In my article, which we republish in this issue of FNG Research, I summarise the geographies, the developments in arts, and also different collections within the overall collection, as well as the link between the exhibition programme and the profile of the international art collection, which go hand in hand. I wrote that still the key question concerns how we understand our own time: ‘A collection of contemporary art lives with the changing world. Our national collection is being built in relation to the international art field around the world, yet from a given location. The planet has shrunk as a consequence of travel and the internet. The primary aim of the collection is not to fill an art-historical canon, but rather, to actively shape it and be prepared to tell stories of our own time.’
 The book was published in English in 1993 by St Martin’s Press, New York, with a title Tom of Finland: His Life and Times.
 Translated into English from F. Valentine Hooven III’s original text Tom of Finland – Life and Work of a Gay Hero.
Featured image: Installation view of the ‘Tom of Finland – Bold Journey’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, 2023
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen
Read more — Download FNG Research No. 2/2023 as a PDF