Artist Profile: Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland, perhaps the most iconic creator of erotic gay art, understood his role as a liberator. His images of men unleashing their deepest fantasies have provided an outlet for self-identification and established a visual iconography of eroticism. Below Christine von der Linn dives in to Tom’s life and distinct artistic style.

Early Life

As a sexually oppressed young man in the 1940s, it was not until the Russo-Finnish war and the German defense of Finland that Tom had his first physical encounters with the military-uniformed men that would forever be engrained in his sexual mythology. His earliest drawings from this period resemble Soviet and Nazi propaganda posters in their fascist-classical style, which allowed for parody, bending ideas of power. When we look at his mature work, we can follow some of those threads and see the skillful, clever twists on classical and neo-classical art, like the highly stylized, art-deco treatment of his faces, clothing, and settings.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, gouache on paper, 1947.
Image courtesy of Tom of Finland Foundation.

The strict obscenity laws in Finland restricted his growing talent and it was not until submitting his work to the body-building magazines in America that Tom finally found a commercial and creative outlet. The fairly tame photographs and drawings in their pages allowed him to celebrate the beauty of the male form in the American spirit of sport and the outdoors. His first drawing showed a brawny Finnish logger, hinting at symbolism to come.

From a distance, then, he was keeping pace with American gay liberation and cultural shifts. His leather and boot fetish dovetailed with the rise of the rougher male sex symbol in American movies, most notably the outlaw biker as portrayed by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. In addition to his military men, the biker was a theme that would dominate much of his work: 

Tom of Finland, Untitled, pencil on paper, 1965. To be offered in our August 19 sale of LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History. Estimate $25,000 to $35,000.
Tom of Finland, Obsessions, screenprint, 1982. To be offered in our August 19 sale of LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History. Estimate $800 to $1,200.

In a 1966 letter by Tom, written a decade before he arrived in the United States, he inquires after a copy of the book Men in Uniform and states his artistic integrity by pointing to his already burgeoning physique magazine work: 

Tom of Finland, autograph letter signed, asking whether A. Willard would send copies of the books Men in Uniform and Men in Leather to Finland, 1966. To be offered in our August 19 sale of LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.

Tom of Finland in California

When he arrived in California in 1977, it was no surprise that he was immediately embraced by a community who viewed him as paragon of gay pride. He settled in California for the remainder of his life, serving as a quiet but steady mentor.

It is important to note that Tom also turned sexual roles on their head. The stereotype of a dominant and submissive partner assumed of a both a male/female and gay relationships was not one he subscribed to. Each partner in his drawings enjoyed both roles, exchanging giving and taking with equal lustiness. Even in his more BDSM imagery, his subjects were always willing participants. That sense of inclusion, coupled with fun, humor, curiosity, and quite often, a current of sexual anticipation, dominates his subjects and their poses.

His skill and mastery of graphite and colored pencil could bring these elements to life. A genius of light and shading, his hand could render his sartorial details, rippled muscles, and facial expressions with incredible acumen.

Tom of Finland, Home – Secured, colored pencil on paper, 1982. To be offered in our August 19 sale of LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History. Estimate $60,000 to $90,000.

Even in his preparatory sketches, he paid strict attention to lines, curves, and composition. The two drawings in our August 19, 2021 sale display a confident hand that would inform the finished drawing. Faint lines of tracing that correct positioning and form are evident. And with only a few strokes, he set the expression on each man’s face, already confirming the emotional intention of the image.

Tom of Finland, Untitled (Preparatory Sketch of Two Men Standing), pencil, 1985. To be offered in our August 19 sale of LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History. Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.

Owning a work by Tom of Finland is something like a rite of passage. In his essay Don Knotts at the Leather Mansion, filmmaker and art collector, John Waters, describes his own purchase of a drawing from the Tom of Finland Foundation:

“I selected a lovely little signed pencil sketch of a handsome stud rimming a butch biker and wrote out the check. Money is rarely spent so well. The drawing now hangs in a hall right outside my bedroom in my Baltimore house, and every time I pass it, I feel happier. I wonder what the cleaning lady thinks? She’s never mentioned it.”

Special thanks to thank Volker Morlock, and Durk Dehner, Sharp, and the staff at the Tom of Finland Foundation for their insights and essays about Tom which informed this blog, as well as their assistance with consignments. The Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles protects, promotes, and preserves the work of Tom of Finland. In addition to holding his archives, they help support the work of LGBTQ artists and helps educate the public as to the cultural merits of erotic art, promoting healthier, more tolerant attitudes about sexuality.

Do you have a work by Tom of Finland we should take a look at?

  Learn about how to consign to an auction, and send us a note about your item.