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Lust for life – the art of Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland

1 July 2024

From the July/August 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

My Saturday agenda for London Gallery Weekend was scuppered by the unexpected arrival of my son, who, at 20 minutes’ notice, conceded to join me ‘for a late lunch’ (so grand is he, at 23) on his way to Brighton. Lunch achieved, we travelled to Clapham for an exhibition pairing Beryl Cook’s saucy paintings of leopard print-clad ladies and Tom of Finland’s even saucier drawings of improbably proportioned boys in biker leathers at Studio Voltaire (until 25 August). Intergenerational chat on the way turned to TikTok, and how the platform incentivised the sharing of ailments, bereavements, heartbreak and other afflictions. TikTok, it seems, is not so different from the art world, with its appetite for competitive feel-baddery.

Both born in the 1920s, Cook and Tom of Finland – real name Touko Laaksonen – are artists most familiar as illustrators, their drawings and paintings circulating through merch and magazines. I encountered both around the same time, in the late 1980s; the former in the greeting card racks of WHSmith, the latter in bookshops of a rather different kind in Soho. The exhibition makes a case for considering each seriously according to their skill in design – their originality, draughting and composition – as well as the lives, fantastical and real, that populate their works.

Lady of Marseille (c. 1990), Beryl Cook. Cook Family Collection. Photo: courtesy the Beryl Cook Estate; © John Cook 2023

A vitrine carries plastic albums of snapshots taken by Cook of cafes, hen nights, strip-o-grams and discos. She’s excited by the way women style themselves, and in particular the matching outfits through which they show tribal affiliation. She watches how they budge and jostle as a group, how they form a defiant pack and exchange glances. Sketches show her working on individual figures and their costumes, before building them up into compositions with a flattened perspective as crammed with detail and human interaction as a Bruegel tavern.

Laaksonen instead took magazines as his field of study – often those same publications to which he started contributing in the 1950s. From their pages he snipped snatched jawlines and impeccable bouffants, tight butts and rippling chests, leather, leather and more leather: jackets, caps, harnesses, jeans and boots. His cut-outs are shown here as framed collages, though the presentation is utilitarian. These were provocations to dream, prompts for fantasy. Physique magazines, with their dynamite men dressed in salad oil, were a potent source of creative as well as erotic inspiration. David Hockney protested against the shortcomings of the (mostly female) life models at the Royal College of Art in his graduation work Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) in which a strapping hunk in a posing pouch from Physique Pictorial appears beside an academic study of a skeleton.

Untitled (1962), Tom of Finland. Photo: © Tom of Finland Foundation

One could mount a po-faced defence of both artists from an art historical perspective but that, I think, is missing the point. Studio Voltaire’s exhibition is about pleasure and the role art might play in it. We arrived to find the show rammed with visitors, which seemed appropriate given that the zealous over-filling of tight spaces was its presiding theme. The combination of Cook and Laaksonen was unexpectedly intoxicating. She brought out the humour in his work, he the underlying sexuality in hers.

Studio Voltaire is interested in Cook and Laaksonen in part because they fall so far outside the art world’s comfort zone – too graphic, too raunchy, too funny, too popular, too gleefully bad taste. These butts, bosoms and bulges were built for pleasure. Everyone was smiling, which is frankly weird in an art gallery. Where’s the misery? My son’s expression was familiar from childhood occasions when he had been allowed to do something previously forbidden and couldn’t believe his transgression was permitted. In this instance it derived not from using sharp tools or driving a tractor but looking at sexy drawings in a crowded public space. Uh, is this allowed?

Untitled (1964), from the Athletic Model Guild’s Motorcycle-Thief series, Tom of Finland. Photo: © Tom of Finland Foundation

These days, we more often look for pleasure in private: porn and prospective hookups alike are viewed on personal devices. It is disconcerting to be invited to scrutinise arousing imagery in a public environment during daylight hours. While there is a lot of activity in these pictures – billiards, blow-dries, flagellation, fellatio – they are overwhelmingly dedicated to the pleasure of looking at other bodies. Laaksonen’s men preen for us, but they also check one another out. A biker admires a hitch-hiker in low cut spray-on denims, a prison guard sits back and enjoys the spectacle of a naked inmate pressing himself against the bars of his cell, cowboys gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, a cocksure Narcissus is enraptured by his hand mirror.

Cook likewise paints bodies as objects of desire, to women as well as men. A rounded bottom in a pair of tight denim flares pulls focus at ‘Bangs’ Disco (1977), the proprietor of Elvira’s Café (1997) gazes at a tanned marine in tiny shorts and a singlet, the ladies lean in for an eyeful as a stripper proudly pulls off his thong in Ladies Night (1981). As in Laaksonen’s drawings, nobody asks for permission. The body is offered for the pleasure of the eye.

Elvira’s Cafe (1997), Beryl Cook. Photo: courtesy the Beryl Cook Estate; © John Cook

Aglow, we spilled out on to Clapham High Street. It’s not only London’s galleries that celebrate the first weekend in June; this was also peak hen party season. We passed through wave after wave of tipsy women laughing and falling about in matching outfits as we walked to the station. How Cook would have enjoyed looking at them.

‘Beryl Cook/Tom of Finland’ is at Studio Voltaire, London, until 25 August.

From the July/August 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.