A new exhibition showing the works of Touko Laaksonen, better known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, adds a personal touch to the late Finnish artist whose homoerotic drawings of muscular men gained a following in the gay community from the 1950s.
“Tom of Finland — Bold Journey,” which opens Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki, features Laaksonen’s drawings, archive material, personal clothing items as well as memorabilia, letters, publications, magazines and films.
Laaksonen’s cheerful, sexually explicit works made an impact in the art world at a time when homosexuality was illegal or classified as a disease in countries around the world, including his native Finland. The Nordic country has since embraced the artist, who died in 1991, as a national icon.
“Tom is one of our national heroes who deserves to be seen as one of the most well-known Finnish artists of the 20th century,” said Kiasma museum director Leevi Haapala.
He said Tom of Finland had emerged as one of the country’s best known pop culture brands, along with the Moomins, the comic strip characters created by Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson.
“His art has been liberating and empowering for countless gay men and sexual minorities for decades,” the museum said in a statement.
The chiseled male characters depicted by Laaksonen, including lumberjacks, bikers, sailors, soldiers and policemen, “exude vitality, joy and pride,” Kiasma said.
The retrospective of Laaksonen’s works is compiled by the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and the Kiasma museum, which is part of the Finnish National Gallery. It is the largest exhibit of his works ever shown in his native country.
“There are sort of two different men; Touko had his own biography and Tom had his own biography, and they sort of paralleled,” said Durk Dehner, the president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation.
Haapala said Laaksonen’s works had directly influenced several well-known artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber and David Hockney, and may have even inspired music acts like the Village People.
In Finland, his art is now embraced far beyond the gay community.
“In this polarized time, I think we need iconic figures like Tom to remind us of tolerance,” he said.
The exhibition runs through Oct. 29.