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Tom of Finland

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Tom of Finland (May 8, 1920 – November 7, 1991) (born Touko Laaksonen in Kaarina, Finland) was a fetish artist notable for his stylized homoerotic art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. Over the course of four decades he produced some 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits: heavily muscled torsos, limbs, buttocks and improbably large penises. Tight or partially removed clothing showed off these traits, with penises often visible as distinct bulges in tight trousers or prominently displayed for the viewer. His drawings frequently feature two or more men either immediately preceding or during explicit sexual activity.[1]

Life and careerEdit

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Touko Laaksonen made his first erotic drawings in his youth, but none of them are known to exist; Laaksonen said that he had at first kept his drawings hidden, but then destroyed them "at least by the time I went to serve the army"[2]. His drawings were based on images of masculine Finnish laborers he had seen from an early age. Finland, however, soon became embroiled in the Winter War with the USSR, and then formally involved in World War II, and Laaksonen was conscripted into the Finnish Army. He served as an anti-aircraft officer, holding the rank of a second lieutenant. He later attributed his fetishistic interest in uniformed men to encounters with men in army uniform at this time. After the war, Laaksonen returned to civilian life and worked in the advertising industry as a commercial graphic artist, continuing to create erotic drawings for his own pleasure on the side.

In 1956, Laaksonen submitted some of his homoerotic drawings to the influential American magazine Physique Pictorial for publication under the pseudonym Tom, as it resembled his given name Touko. The editor of the magazine changed the name to Tom of Finland.[3]

Laaksonen's work soon came to the attention of the gay community at large, and by 1973, he was both publishing erotic comic books and infiltrating the mainstream art world. He was best known for works that focused on homomasculine archetypes such as lumberjacks, motorcycle policemen, sailors, businessmen, bikers, and leathermen. His most prominent comic series are the "Kake" comics, which included these archetypal characters in abundance.

Exhibitions of Laaksonen's work began in the 1970s and in 1973 he gave up his full-time job at the Helsinki office of international advertising firm McCann-Erickson. "Since then I've lived in jeans and lived on my drawings," is how he described the lifestyle transition which occurred during this period.

In 1979, Laaksonen founded the Tom of Finland Company to collect and distribute his work. This company exists to the present day, and has expanded into a non-profit foundation dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting homoerotic artwork. In the late 1990s, the company introduced a fashion line based on his works, which covers a wide array of looks besides the typified cutoff-jeans-and-jacket style of his drawings. The fashion line balances the original homoeroticism of the drawings with mainstream fashion culture, and their runway shows occur in many of the venues during the same times as other fashion companies.

Before his death, Laaksonen was the subject of the Finnish documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy - The Art, Life, and Times of Tom of Finland which includes interviews with the artist. The European art publisher Taschen has published various collections of his work including three 'Retrospective' Anthologies.

Many of his drawings are based on photographs, but none are exact reproductions of them. The photographic inspiration is used, on the one hand, to create lifelike, almost moving images, with convincing and active postures and gestures whilst, on the other hand, Laaksonen exaggerates physical features and presents his ideal of masculine beauty and sexual allure, combining realism with fantasy. This is explained in some detail in Daddy and the Muscle Academy - The Art, Life, and Times of Tom of Finland, which includes examples of photographs and the drawings based upon them side by side.

Controversy and artistic appreciationEdit

During his lifetime and beyond, Laaksonen's work has drawn both admiration and disdain from different quarters of the artistic community. Laaksonen developed a friendship with gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe whose work depicting sado-masochism and fetish iconography was also subject to controversy.

A controversial theme in his drawings was the erotic treatment of men in Nazi uniforms. They form a small part of his overall work, but the typically flattering visual treatment of these characters has led some viewers to infer sympathy or affinity for Nazism, and they have been omitted from most recent anthologies of his work. Later in his career Laaksonen disavowed this work and was at pains to dissociate himself and his work from fascist or racist ideologies. He also depicted a significant number of black men in his drawings, with no overt racial or political message in the context in which they appear; although they bear some commonality with racist caricatures of the "hypersexual" black male, these traits are shared by Laaksonen's white characters as well.

Art critics have mixed views about Laaksonen's work. His detailed drawing technique has led to him being described as a 'master with a pencil', while in contrast a reviewer for Dutch newspaper Het Parool described his work as 'illustrative but without expressivity'.

There is considerable argument over whether his depiction of 'supermen' (male characters with huge sexual organs and muscles) is facile and distasteful, or whether there is a deeper complexity in the work which plays with and subverts those stereotypes. For example, some critics have noted examples of apparent tenderness between traditionally tough, masculine characters, or playful smiles in sado-masochistic scenes.

In either case, there remains a large constituency who admire the work on a purely utilitarian basis, as described by Rob Meyer, owner of a leathershop and art gallery in Amsterdam, 'These works are not conversation pieces, they're masturbation pieces'.

Cultural impact and legacyEdit

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Arguably Laaksonen's work revived and commercialised an underground leather counter-culture which emerged after World War II and reached its height in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the emergence of AIDS in the gay community.

The apparel, styling, and demeanour adopted by large numbers of gay men during that period appear to be derived directly from his work (for example, Glenn Hughes of the Village People). Although the prevalence of this 'look' has declined since the mid-1980s, Laaksonen's work continues to be used extensively in gay publications, bars, clubs, and online communities who associate with its erotic subject matter. The combination of cap, leather jacket, and moustache became known in the pop culture of Western world as a visual stereotype of gay men (see Police Academy movie series).

In the late 1970s, clothes designer Vivienne Westwood appropriated Laaksonen's art for t-shirts which were featured at SEX, the store run by Westwood and partner Malcolm McLaren. The t-shirts were modelled by Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, and became an iconic part of punk history in the process.

In the late 1980s, artist G.B. Jones began a series of drawings called the "Tom Girls" that appropriated both Tom of Finland's drawings and Vivienne Westwood's exploitation of them. The drawings were done in the style of Tom of Finland and based on his drawings, but featured punk girls or other subculturally identified women. However, unlike Tom's drawings, in Jones' work the authority figures exist only to be undermined, not obeyed. The two artists showed together in New York City in the early 1990s.

In 1999, an exhibition took place at the Institut Culturel Finlandais (Finnish Cultural Centre) in Paris.

New York's Museum of Modern Art has acquired several examples of Laaksonen's artwork for its permanent collection.[4]

VideographyEdit

  • Ilppo Pohjola (author): Kari Paljakka and Alvaro Pardo (producers): Daddy and the Muscle Academy: Tom of Finland: United Kingdom: Oracle Home Entertainment: 2002

Duration of Feature: 93 Minutes. Also features frames of Laaksonen's graphic art. Restricted to audiences over eighteen years of age.

See alsoEdit

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NotesEdit

  • Hooven, F. Valentine. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. ISBN 031209325X
  • Ramakers, Mischa. Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity and Homosexuality. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. ISBN 0312205260
  • Tom of Finland: The Art of Pleasure. Mischa Ramakers, ed. London: Taschen, 1998, ISBN 3822885983
  • Tom of Finland: The Comic Collection. Vol. 1-5. Dian Hanson, ed. London: Taschen, 2005. ISBN 3822383497
  • Arell, Berndt & Mustola, Kati (2006), Tom of Finland: Ennennäkemätöntä - Unforeseen, Like, ISBN 952-471-843-X 

ReferencesEdit

  1. Arell, Berndt & Mustola, Kati (2006), Tom of Finland: Ennennäkemätöntä - Unforeseen, Like, ISBN 952-471-843-X 
  2. Arell & Mustola, p. 15
  3. Arell & Mustola, p. 31. This followed the naming conventions of the magazine. Other pseudonyms of the time were Bruce of Los Angeles and Spartan of Hollywood, for example.
  4. Arell & Mustola, p. 187

External linksEdit

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