The stylised drawings of intertwined, leather-clad and muscular young men are an iconic part of gay culture from the last century, and instantly recognisable as the work of homoerotic artist Tom of Finland.
Now, the models who posed for Tom of Finland – real name Touko Laaksonen – can be seen in the flesh, through an exhibition of rarely displayed photos taken by the artist which opened in the Estonian capital on Friday.
The 130 photographs, the majority of which have never been shown in public before, show Laaksonen’s friends, partners and other men he encountered in Finland and the USA.
Many of the poses, clothes and even tattoos on the models have been faithfully reproduced in Laaksonen’s drawings, albeit with the muscles and groins beefed up into the artist’s trademark butch style.
One picture from 1990 of Kenneth ”Wiki” Wickman, a close friend and muse to Laaksonen, is displayed next to the drawing it inspired, which is thought to be Laaksonen’s last work before he died from a lung condition in 1991.
Another regular figure in the photographs is Aarno Nurmi, sometimes dressed in a skin-tight police uniform. Nurmi was a friend of Laaksonen and one of the artist’s favourite models during the 1970s.
”Photographs were the source for all of Tom of Finland’s drawings,” said Berndt Arell, curator of the exhibition at Tallinn’s Fotografiska gallery.
”The exhibition reveals how systematically he worked. Without the photographer Touko Laaksonen there would be no Touko Laaksonen the drawer,” Arell said.
Many more photos destroyed
Many of the pictures were sourced from the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles.
”At the time there were many, many more pictures, certainly in the thousands,” Arell said. ”Touko destroyed them himself because he wanted to protect his models.”
In Laaksonen’s youth homosexuality was designated both a crime and a mental illness. Taking erotic pictures was illegal and the artist, who developed the pictures in his own darkroom at home, did not want them to end up in the wrong hands.
Although Tom of Finland gained an international following among the gay community, the artist himself kept his sexuality to himself his whole life, coming out only to his sister Kaija.
Story continues after photo
Few centenary plans in Finland
The exhibition in Estonia, which will then move to New York in May, is one of the largest celebrations of Laaksonen during the centenary of his birth this year.
The show will then come to Stockholm’s Fotografiska gallery in time for the city’s Pride week, while a separate exhibition will be put on by the Finnish Institute in London.
However in his native Finland, there are few major plans to mark the anniversary, with the artist notably lacking from the programmes of the country’s largest art museums.
”It’s very strange given that Tom of Finland is one of Finland’s most internationally recognised artists, if not the most recognised,” Arell said.
While Tom of Finland’s work has been reprinted on products ranging from bed sheets to packs of coffee in Finland, as well as on a series of postage stamps, a campaign to name a street after the artist in his hometown of Kaarina, southwest Finland