There are 70 pieces in the exhibition that were made from the 1950s to the 1980s, more than 20 of which have never been shown before. The selection includes 40 works on paper created between the 1960s and 1980s, on loan from the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, which has been championing his work since 1984.
In his work, masculinity itself becomes more nuanced and less binary, even though it toyed with masculine archetypes. Instead of being a source of oppression for gay men, it became a source of their arousal. In fact, Tom created his work for an audience of gay men, once saying its aim was to “tell them not to give up [and] to think positively about their act and their whole being”. Here, in the fantasy land of his drawings, their sexuality was something strong, open and free – not weak, hidden and repressed.
Tom’s aesthetic impacted everyone from Robert Mapplethorpe to Freddie Mercury and he had a notable relationship with fashion, too. “Clothes were really important to Tom, he said that naked men were beautiful, but that they were ‘more than beautiful’ when clothed,” says Ahmad. “His personal fetish for leather and the archetypal clothing of manual workers and state and military authority figures developed into a distinctive aesthetic which influenced street fashion, as well as couture.” Jean Paul Gaultier’s perfume bottle, for example, is a nod to Tom. Cali Thornhill DeWitt created T-shirts and sweatshirts for the Foundation last year, emblazoned with a fictional Cock University logo.
“Tom’s work is about more than just sex – it’s about intimacy, tenderness, celebration and camaraderie which gives it a different potency to many of the images we see every day,” Ahmad notes. It is credit to his skill as an artist that the emotional resonance that he depicted and conveyed in his images is still as deeply liberating as it was decades ago.”
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