Tom of Finland’s sultry bikers and lumberjacks are storming art galleries. A mainstay of gay erotic art for decades, the Finnish artist’s illustrations have been increasingly embraced by the contemporary art world, no doubt admiring their urgent message and titillated in equal measure.
Yet the artist’s work has only been shown in England once, as part of a group show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2000. This summer, it is finally getting some significant exposure in London with a solo exhibition at Stuart Shave/Modern Art coinciding with a presentation of several Tom of Finland illustrations in “Keep Your Timber Limber” — a show on gender politics curated by Glasgow International´s director Sarah McCrory at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
These two exhibitions make for a satisfying overview of Tom of Finland’s practice. Stuart Shave/Modern Art focuses on the preparatory drawings — quick sketches of ultra-muscular bodies that filled the artist’s fantasies and fed others’ — while the ICA concentrates on the finished illustrations, from the softer early works dating from the late 1940s to the more explicit pieces realized in the 1970s and 1980s.
When Tom of Finland died in 1991, he had produced over 3,500 illustrations. Most of his life was spent in Helsinki, but he first found fame with, in his words, his “dirty drawings” in the United States. One of his lumberjacks made the cover of the “beefcake” magazine Physique Pictorial in 1957, launching the artist in what was at the time a small circle of connoisseurs.
Tom of Finland was no militant, but his images struck a chord in the homosexual community, who found in them an alternative to the cliché of the effeminate gay male. His characters personify a confident virility, men able to enjoy and push the boundaries of their own sexuality.
“My drawings are primarily meant for guys who may have experienced misunderstanding and oppression and feel that they have somehow failed in their lives,” said the artist. “I want to encourage them. I want to encourage this minority group, to tell them not to give up, to think positively about their act and whole being.”
A hangover from the artist’s time in the Finnish army during WWII, some drawings also controversially feature Nazi, or Nazi-like uniforms. “These have to be taken in context,” says McCrory. “He was intrigued and excited by uniforms in all formats, and definitely not a Nazi supporter.”
“His work, from the very beginning, was a commitment to showing homosexual men not as perverts or deviants, but as happy men engaged in consensual sex,” she continues. “During a period where jail time was commonly given for being caught with other men, I feel he was an activist through his work.”
Tom of Finland’s work entered the MoMA collection in New York via a 2006 gift from the Judith Rothschild Foundation, and he is well represented in public collections in the States, including at The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Of late Scandinavia has also actively supported his work. His hometown of Turku chose to give him a retrospective when the city was European Capital of Culture in 2011, and the artist was shown most recently at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm.
The UK is finally catching up. Stuart Shave/Modern Art’s exhibition is the artist’s first solo show in Britain, and yet another confirmation of the reappraisal Tom of Finland’s work has undergone in the last decade. “I know my little ‘dirty drawings’ are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre, but it would be nice if — I would like to say ‘when,’ but I better say ‘if’ — our world learns to accept all the different ways of loving,” he said the year of his death. “Then maybe I could have a place in one of the smaller side rooms.”