“My whole life long I have done nothing but interpret my dreams of ultimate masculinity, and draw them,” Touko Laaksonen (better known as Tom of Finland) once said, reflecting on his life’s work. Characterised by his signature hyper-masculine figures bound in leather, tight uniforms, white vests, chaps, and military boots, his artwork occupies pride of place in the canon of late-twentieth-century queer culture, having defined and codified the aesthetic for generations of numerous gay tribes, musicians, and designers (lately, JW Anderson and PAOM to name but a few).
The Finnish artist’s never-before-displayed early works are now on display in The Darkroom at Fotografiska in New York City, an exhibition featuring the photographic portraits which would later inspire and inform his famous homoerotic drawings. Among the incredible body of previously-unexhibited works are the portraits Tom of Finland and legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe took of one another in 1978.
In his native Finland, homosexuality was still illegal until 1971 and classified as a mental disorder until 1981 so, like many of Tom of Finland's preliminary sketches, photographs, and correspondence that weren’t destroyed, these images were kept hidden in his home studio and darkroom along with any other potentially incriminating materials.
Created to coincide with the centenary of his birth, the exhibition brings these early photographs out into the light to be celebrated in their sex-positive glory. In a statement from the gallery, The Darkroom’s curator Berndt Arell says, “This never-before-shown treasure trove of images gives a deeper insight into how his skillfully drawn super-macho men were created. Each drawing could consist of several references from several different photographs. The drawings show the men always full of confidence, and always ready, since Tom of Finland’s art, for him, wasn’t about problematising, but about desire and the right to express it.”
Visit the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the works on display in this revealing exhibition.