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Discover the Work of Beryl Cook & Tom of Finland - FAD Magazine

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FAD Magazine covers contemporary art – News, Exhibitions and Interviews reported on from London

Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland brought together for major new exhibition.

For the first time, a major new exhibition will bring together the work of two cultural icons: Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland. At Studio Voltaire, fleshly excesses will be explored in pairings that underscore their works as playful and political.

Beryl Cook Elvira’s Café 1997 Courtesy of the Beryl Cook Estate Ó John Cook 2023

Beryl Cook (b. 1926–d. 2008) was a painter renowned for her exuberant style and depictions of everyday life. Her work chronicled the social milieu of the areas she lived in and visited, notably in Plymouth. Her most enduring images are of larger-than- life women carousing in nightclubs, eating in cafés or enjoying ribald hen parties, rendered in graphic and colourful forms. Cook’s work came to prominence in the mid-1970s, and she quickly became known as one of Britain’s best-loved artists, highly recognised for her distinctive works, which are both celebratory and provocative.

Tom of Finland’s (b. 1920–d. 1991) pioneering depictions of homosexual machismo in his images of bikers, cowboys, labourers, and uniformed soldiers and sailors broadly represented queer, leather and muscle communities. A master draughtsman, his works gave form to an imaginative universe that, in turn, helped fuel real-world liberation movements and had a significant influence on a wide range of cultural figures, including the Village People, Freddie Mercury, Jean Paul Gaultier and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Beryl Cook / Tom of Finland will provide a significant refocus and reveal interconnected ideas surrounding gender, sexuality, taste and class. Both artists have a distinct and coherent way of hyper-realising the body in images that fundamentally celebrate pleasure and deny shame. Tom of Finland’s drawings of gay men proudly revelling in their sexuality both redefined and deconstructed conventions of masculinity. His works were exemplified by a highly coded visual language but radiated joy and vitality. Cook’s paintings, once described by celebrated British comedian Victoria Wood as “Rubens with jokes”, are often deliciously camp but derive from keenly observed social interactions. The women in her works are not caricatured but rather command the space of the painting in complex, vivid and entirely believable portraits.

The exhibition will include a rich archive of materials, many of which have never been seen by the public, including fanmail, preparatory sketches, source photography, and early publications and merchandise that illuminate their working processes. Both artists received their first solo exhibitions in the 1970s; however, their audiences more frequently encountered their work outside of gallery and museum systems.

Beryl Cook Bar and Barbara 1984 Courtesy of the Beryl Cook Estate Ó John Cook 2023
Tom of Finland Untitled 1962 (From the Athletic Model Guild ‘The Tattooed Sailor’ series) © 1962 Tom of Finland Foundation

The artists directly engaged with their audiences, gaining dedicated and enduring followings and subsequently impacting a wider popular culture. Tom of Finland first published his work via proto-porn “fitness” magazines and a covert but extensive network of friends and followers. Cook’s practice was widely reproduced in postcards, calendars and prints that brought her work into the homes of thousands of admirers. Many of Cook’s original paintings entered private collections, but there are now limited records remaining of their whereabouts. Studio Voltaire is keen to hear from anyone who has an original painting and is interested in loaning work for the exhibition, particularly Cook’s inimitable depictions of women—confident, defiant and joyous.

The exhibition is made in partnership with Tom of Finland Foundation and the family of Beryl Cook.

When Studio Voltaire’s Director Joe Scotland first suggested this exhibition, pairing Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland, we (the family of Beryl Cook) were unsure how the artists complemented each other, but we soon realised their works share so much in common.

During Beryl’s lifetime, her closest friends were members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and it was these friends who encouraged and supported her. She was chiefly interested in painting people, socialising and enjoying themselves and so was Tom. They both have a great sense of humour.

Beryl would have been flattered and highly entertained at the prospect of this exhibition, and so are we.

Sophie Howe, Beryl Cook’s granddaughter,
Tom of Finland Portrait of Pekka 1975 Cover of Sex in the Shed © 1975 Tom of Finland Foundation

What would Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland say about them being paired in an exhibition? With big smiles, they would be delighted. The two artists both explored and indulged freely in their sensual exploration of bodies. As Tom said, “Cock size doesn’t matter to me. I didn’t start doing those gigantic cocks until the censors let the magazines publish full-frontal nudity. I had to come up with something you couldn’t get in a photograph. So those big cocks are all for the other guys — I’m an ass man myself.

Durk Dehner, co-founder of Tom of Finland Foundation said:

About the artists

Beryl Cook born Beryl Francis Lansley in 1926 in Surrey, England. One of four sisters, she left school at fourteen and worked in the fashion industry, which inspired her life-long interest in the way people dress and how they look.

In 1943 Cook moved to London and became a showgirl in a touring production of The Gypsy Princess. She went on to marry John Cook and lived in Southern Rhodesia and later Zambia during the 1960s. It was here that Cook first began to paint, attempting the figurative style of Stanley Spencer. When Beryl was 40, she took up painting seriously. In 1975 had her first exhibition at the Plymouth Arts Centre. Within a few years, she was well known through exhibitions, television appearances, and the publication of the first of several collections of her work in book form.

Today, her works are held in the collections of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, the Bristol City Museum of Art Gallery, and the Plymouth City Art Gallery, among others. The artist has received retrospective exhibitions at Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2007); Plymouth City Art Gallery, Plymouth (2017); and A.H.F.T.A.W, New York (2022).

Born Touko Valio Laaksonen in 1920 in Kaarina, Finland. Tom of Finland trained at an advertising school, but what he would come to call his ‘dirty drawings,’ which he first began developing as a teenager, were the true focus of his attention, both during this formative period and throughout the entirety of his life. These masterful renderings of virile men engrossed in acts of homoerotic desire can be approached along several interpretative lines — art historical, social, technical — but each of them points to the revolutionary nature of his project. Signing his work ‘Tom’, he was later given the moniker ‘Tom of Finland’ by Bob Mizer, who published Tom’s drawings in the influential magazine Physique Pictorial.

Previously somewhat dismissed as only of gay interest, in recent years, there has been a significant re-evaluation of his artistic practice. His work has since been exhibited in galleries and public institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Finland (2023); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2019); Artists Space, New York (2015); and ICA, London (2013); and is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The estate is represented by Tom of Finland Foundation — a registered charitable foundation based in LA; David Kordansky Gallery, LA/NYC; and Galerie Judin, Berlin.

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