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She walked out of Tom of Finland feeling sick

18 jun , 2018, 22.12 Peter Seenan


A couple of years ago a close friend of mine attended the Tom of Finland exhibition at Taidehalli with her colleagues. One, a married mother, left in disgust explaining that she’d been made to feel physically sick.

I was reminded of this story while watching an outstanding documentary about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and revolutionary work this week on YLE Areena. His imagery has also appeared in Helsinki, at Kiasma.

Mapplethorpe faced severe criticism in his time because of the subject matter he depicted through his lense. It was shocking for many to see intimacy, particularly homosexual sexuality, brought from the bedroom into the art gallery.

There’s a scene in the film where labourers working near an underground club regularly acquainted by Mapplethorpe decry the vulgarity and depravity and the mental sickness this gay hangout visits upon the neighbourhood. Mapplethorpe’s work is somehow seen as an extension of that immorality.

The documentary, like Mapplethorpe’s life, is full of enraged men screaming that his work should be banished and holding protests at art galleries, explaining why someone else’s sexuality and intimacy is wrong.

I wondered what their reactions would have been if every beautifully composed photograph of a black penis was substituted with a vagina or pair of breasts, the lines of a flower used to evoke a woman’s back instead.

And it reminded me of my friend’s colleague’s reaction to Tom of Finland, just as offended in 2016 by the sight of a sketched, almost comically exaggerated penis in an art gallery. But a reaction to what? To one’s own intolerance certainly.

So much of Mapplethorpe’s work was simple and powerful, showing what we all know to be human. Intimacy, sexuality, love, nudity, arousal. He celebrated homosexuality and sent a powerful message to those who wanted to pretend homosexuality didn’t exist.

Hearing about my friend’s colleague’s reaction to Tom of Finland annoyed me enormously because essentially she was repulsed by the depiction of someone else’s sexuality; a sexuality that is as worthy and right as her own. But her reaction also pleased me because she’d been forced to recognise a reality even though it wasn’t her own.

With Helsinki Pride upon us it’s a good time to remember the people and movements that have faced down intolerance, standing up to those who seek to control other people’s bodies, thoughts and sexuality.

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