Touko Valio Laaksonen, the queer Finnish artist better known as Tom of Finland, died in 1991. But his iconic homoerotic drawings are as popular now as in the 1950s and ‘60s — if not more so.
On August 30, Skira releases Tom of Finland: An Imaginary Sketchbook. The 128-page book takes a step back from the super-polished illustrations you may be familiar with — presenting dozens of unfinished pencil drawings and preliminary sketches of the cowboys, cops, bikers, and studs who define Laaksonen’s work.
An Imaginary Sketchbook has almost no text, save for an afterward by the book’s co-editors, Juerg Judin and Pay Matthis Karstens of Berlin’s Galerie Judin.
“We intentionally didn’t do a forward, just an addendum,” Karstens told Queerty. “We wanted him to be taken seriously as an artist who doesn’t need explanation. Like, ‘Can we just appreciate what he’s doing before we talk about the message?’”
Karstens and Juden worked closely with the Tom of Finland Foundation to pull highlights from a more extensive collection of Laaksonen’s sketches, some of which appeared in public for the first time in a 2017 exhibition.
“We wanted to show a spectrum of what he drew and how he drew,” Karstens said. “Not just ones where every line is perfect. But drawings where you see the process and a bit of how ‘Tom’s man’ changed.”
Not all the illustrations in the sketchbook are preparatory works, what Laaksonen called ‘roughs,’ where he’s arranging figures and compositions.
“You can see him trying a gesture, erasing it, and finding the right one,” Karstens said. “It’s very different from the finished works, which are so ‘finished.’”
The drawings aren’t presented chronologically nor represent the entirety of Laaksonen’s oeuvre: Most are from the late 1960s to late ‘80s.
And a few illustrations reveal some of the master’s weak spots: In several, models’ shoes are left unfinished or conveniently obscured by bell bottoms.
“He was bad with feet and shoes,” Karstens said with a laugh, “so he tried to avoid them.”
The signature Tom of Finland eroticism is on full display, but some of Karstens’ favorite drawings show a tender side, like one depicting two men cuddling.
“Yes, there’s a huge bulge, but there’s also a show of love,” he said. “A connection beyond the sexual.”
Tom of Finland in fashion
Tom of Finland’s legacy continues beyond gallery shows and coffee table books. Last month British fashion label JW Anderson unveiled its third collaboration with the Tom of Finland Foundation, which oversees licensing Laaksonen’s imagery.
The foundation has partnered with various retailers, from Comme des Garçons to Happy Hour Skateboards. Flavor Paper even created x-rated wallpaper in collaboration with Michael Reynolds and Hoffman Creative.
In May, Diesel partnered with Tom of Finland on a Pride capsule collection and launched “All Together,” a pair of exhibitions in Venice and Paris displaying original works by Tom of Finland and artists inspired by him.
“In the most universal terms, Tom’s body of work represents tolerance, acceptance, pride, joy, and freedom,” Joakim Andreasson, director of licensing for Tom of Finland, told Fashion Network. “His imagery has become symbolic of the advancement of gay rights and sexual freedom.”
Karstens isn’t surprised so many mainstream retailers have been clamoring to collaborate with the Tom of Finland Foundation.
“Playboy bunnies, pinup girls — they’ve been the norm for ages. It was time for it to happen to men,” he said. “There’s been a window opened to acceptance of male nudes, of homoerotic art. It’s a catching up — an emancipation of the male body.”
While Tom of Finland is inexplicably connected to the queer movement, even those outside the LGBTQ community can appreciate the sense of liberty he’s evoking.
“Sexual liberty, yes, but also just being who you are, which is something people are starting to come around to,” Karstens said. “It’s a very broad message that connects to women’s rights, to Black Lives Matter. These pictures are at least 30 or 50 years old, but we can identify with them today. And it’s a very political message, in a sense, which makes it so fresh.”