Erotic Encounters, Mundane Musings: Divergent Visions and Truths of Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook

Tom of Finland, 'Untitled', 1962. From the Atlantic Model Guild 'The Tattooed Sailor' series. © 1962 Tom of Finland Foundation.Courtesy the Tom of Finland Foundation
Author Il Gurn
Category Columnists, Culture, Lifestyle, People, Town
Date May 29 2024
Reading Time 3 min.

Erotic Encounters, Mundane Musings: Divergent Visions and Truths of Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook

The joint exhibition ‘Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook’ at Studio Voltaire, which opened on May 15th, greets viewers with an air of timid intimacy, more characteristic of a fledgling artist’s showcase: small-format artworks grace the walls, and a pair of display cases in the room’s center house photographs, press books, newspaper clippings, and collages. The essence of intrigue is embedded in the deliberate pairing of two artists who, though not traditionally heralded as avant-garde pioneers, have propelled the evolution of contemporary art. At first glance, this juxtaposition beckons viewers to ponder whether it’s a study in contrast or harmony, illuminating the influential yet often overlooked contributions of these two distinctive figures.

Erotic Encounters, Mundane Musings: Divergent Visions and Truths of Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook | London Cult.
Beryl Cook Lady of Marseille, 1982/2024

Tom of Finland casts the most significant shadow in this duo, his body of work dictating the exhibition’s thematic pulse. In the mid-20th century, against a backdrop of sexual stigmatization—especially towards homosexuality—Touko Laaksonen, a Helsinki-based advertising designer, began a series of graphic works that exalted raw machismo. By the late 1950s, his illustrations found their way into American ‘beefcake’ magazines, their homoerotic undertones veiled by the guise of bodybuilding culture. Laaksonen’s cast of characters—lumberjacks, bikers, sailors, and other folk archetypes—are depicted in relaxed poses, tight-fitting attire or sometimes entirely disrobed, with jutting jaws and heroic crotches. These drawings, compiled into comic narratives, evolved into a cult sensation among a niche community of aficionados and erotophiles. A recurring protagonist in these tales is Kake—a muscular, mustachioed stud clad in leather, whose pursuit of sensual pleasures propels him through a series of light-hearted adventures in bars, docksides, and even woodlands. Kake rose as a symbol of the 1960s crusade to dismantle socio-political sexual taboos, his influence traceable in Freddie Mercury’s style, the personas in Rainer Fassbinder’s cinema (and perhaps Fassbinder himself), to the modern-day archetype of the fetishized policeman.

Erotic Encounters, Mundane Musings: Divergent Visions and Truths of Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook | London Cult.
Beryl Cook, Bar Billiards, 1995. Image courtesy of the Beryl Cook Estate.

To label Tom of Finland’s works as ‘semi-pornographic’ would be as inaccurate as overestimating their role as catalysts of social change. Crafted with meticulous precision, these pieces codified the cultural zeitgeist of their era, a heritage that robustly endures in contemporary culture. After relocating from Helsinki to Los Angeles in the 1980s, Touko Laaksonen solidified his status as a cultural phenomenon within the States’ bohemian circles, forging bonds with fellow creatives like photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose oeuvre, among others, bore the mark of Laaksonen’s artistry.

Erotic Encounters, Mundane Musings: Divergent Visions and Truths of Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook | London Cult.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1964. © 1964 Tom of Finland Foundation.

The second voice at the Studio Voltaire exhibition emanates from the paintings of Beryl Cook, affectionately proclaimed ‘Britain’s most beloved artist’ by the hasty-to-judge tabloids. Bereft of formal training, Cook turned to painting at a relatively mature age. Her early canvases leaned towards emulating Gauguin’s tropical period and the style of her British compatriot Stanley Spencer. Yet, as she delved deeper into her artistic journey, Cook’s unique visual language began to crystallize, its imagery and methods evolving into a signature style. A transformative chapter unfolded with her move to Plymouth, which became a wellspring of inspiration for her subsequent themes. Cook’s canvases are populated with asymmetrical, buxom female figures in various urban plots—be it at a pub, amidst the mirth of a hen party, lounging on a garden lawn, or navigating the streets. These scenes, brimming with theatrical humor and a levity seldom seen among her Primitivist peers, seize moments of uninhibited delight, where the constraints of societal norms fade away. Her characters are as free-spirited as they are incongruous, a pervasive sense of their whimsical nonconformity is articulated through a consistently vibrant palette, animated expressions, and a physical lexicon as transient as the very nature of the everyday spectacles that captivated Cook’s artistic focus.

Erotic Encounters, Mundane Musings: Divergent Visions and Truths of Tom of Finland & Beryl Cook | London Cult.
Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1961. From the Athletic Model Guild, ‘The Tattooed Sailor’ series. © 1961 Tom of Finland Foundation.

Within the confines of the gallery space, the works of Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland intersect, yet the prospect of a ‘third,’ enigmatic truth, emerging from their union remains a matter of speculation. When appreciated independently, these artists captivate with their bold defiance, their characters stepping beyond the confines of technique, intent, and context to exalt in the joys of existence and challenge societal shame; morality, to them, is as fluid as the constructs of gender superiority. Nevertheless, the notion of Beryl Cook, the demure chronicler of life’s theater, crossing paths with Touko Laaksonen, the provocateur of masculine attraction, a fantasist and a fixture in the queer scene, seems far-fetched in reality and contentious within the gallery’s domain. Their artistic visions not only diverge but their perspectives on pleasure seem to orbit different principles; when juxtaposed, they narrate in dialects that, while rich, never quite meld into dialogue. Despite the curatorial ambition of fostering a cross-cultural discourse, the outcome of such an initiative is as sporadic as the hypothetical pairing of a Pasolini film with an episode of The Simpsons—would it enlighten or perplex?

Exhibition till 25 August 2024

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