Tom of Finland
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a.k.a. Tom of Finland
Touko Laaksonen, circa 1959.
8 May 1920
|Died||7 November 1991
Touko Valio Laaksonen (8 May 1920 – 7 November 1991), best known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, was a Finnish artist notable for his stylized homoerotic fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. He has been called the "most influential creator of gay pornographic images" by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade.
Over the course of four decades, he produced some 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing.
Early life and education
Laaksonen was born and raised by a middle-class family in Kaarina, a town in southwestern Finland, near the city of Turku. Both of his parents were schoolteachers who taught at the grammar school that served Kaarina. The family lived in the school building which had living quarters attached.
He studied in Turku and in 1939, at the age of 19, he moved to Helsinki to study advertising. In his spare time he also started drawing erotic images for his own pleasure. He first kept his drawings hidden, but then destroyed them "at least by the time I went to serve the army." His drawings were based on images of masculine laborers he had seen from an early age. The country soon became embroiled in the Winter War with the USSR, and then became formally involved in World War II. He was conscripted in February 1940 into the Finnish Army. He served as an anti-aircraft officer, holding the rank of second lieutenant. He later attributed his fetishistic interest in uniformed men to encounters with men in army uniform, especially soldiers of the German Wehrmacht serving in Finland at that time. "In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!" After the war, in 1945, he returned to studies.
Laaksonen's artwork of this period compared to later works is considered more romantic and softer with "gentle-featured shapes and forms." The men featured were middle class, as opposed to the sailors, bikers, lumberjacks, construction workers, and other members of stereotypically hypermasculine working class groups that feature in his later work. Another key difference is the lack of dramatic compositions, self-assertive poses, muscular bodies and "detached exotic settings" that his later work embodied.
In 1956 Laaksonen submitted drawings to the influential American magazine Physique Pictorial which premiered the images in the Spring 1957 issue under the pseudonym Tom, as it resembled his given name Touko; he was also featured as the cover artist with an illustration of two log drivers at work. The editor of the magazine credited them to Tom of Finland. The cover image included a third workingman in the background watching the two log drivers. Pulled from Finnish mythology of lumberjacks representing strong masculinity, Laaksonen emphasized and privileged "homoerotic potentiality [...] relocating it in a gay context", a strategy repeated throughout his career.
The post-World War II era saw the rise of the biker culture as rejecting "the organization and normalization of life after the war, with its conformist, settled lifestyle." Biker subculture was both marginal and oppositional and provided postwar gay men with a stylized masculinity that included rebelliousness and danger which were absent from dominant gay stereotypes. In mainstream culture the strongest image of gay men was generally the effeminate sissy as seen in vaudeville and films going back to the first years of the industry. Laaksonen was influenced by images of bikers as well as artwork of George Quaintance and Etienne, among others, that he cited as his precursors; they were "disseminated to gay readership through homoerotic physique magazines" starting in 1950. Laaksonen's drawings of bikers and leathermen capitalized on the leather and denim outfits which differentiated those men from mainstream culture and suggested they were untamed, physical, and self-empowered. This is contrasted with the mainstream, medical and psychological sad and sensitive young gay man who is passive. Laaksonen's drawings of this time "can be seen as consolidating an array of factors, styles and discourses already existing in the 1950s gay subcultures," this may have led to them being widely distributed and popularized in gay culture.
U.S. censorship codes (1950s–1960s)
Laaksonen's style and content in the late 1950s and early 1960s was partly influenced by the U.S. censorship codes that restricted depiction of "overt homosexual acts." His work was published in the beefcake genre that began in the 1930s and predominantly featured photographs of attractive, muscular young men in athletic poses often shown demonstrating exercises. Their primary market was gay men, but because of the conservative and homophobic social culture of the era gay pornography was illegal and the publications were typically presented as dedicated to physical fitness and health. They were often the only connection that closeted men had to their sexuality. By this time, however, Laaksonen was rendering private commissions so more explicit work was produced but remained unpublished.
In the 1962 case of MANual Enterprises v. Day the United States Supreme Court ruled that nude male photographs were not obscene. Softcore gay pornography magazines and films featuring fully nude models, some of them tumescent, quickly appeared and the pretense of being about exercise and fitness was dropped as controls on pornography were reduced. By the end of the 1960s the market for beefcake magazines collapsed. Laaksonen was able to publish his more overtly homoerotic work and it changed the context with "new possibilities and conventions for displaying frontal male nudity in magazines and movies." Laaksonen reacted by publishing more explicit drawings and stylized his figures' fantastical aspects with exaggerated physical aspects, particularly their genitals and muscles.
Laaksonen is best known for works depicting homomasculine archetypes such as lumberjacks, motorcycle policemen, sailors, bikers, and leathermen. His most prominent comic series is the "Kake" comics, which included these archetypal characters in abundance.
Gay mainstream appeal (1970s– )
Laaksonen's work had predominantly been segmented to private collectors and collections seen only by consumers who sought out the underground gay pornography industry. With the decriminalization of male nudity gay pornography became more mainstream in gay cultures. Laaksonen's drawings also came to the attention of mainstream gay communities, and by 1973, he was both publishing erotic comic books and making inroads to the mainstream art world with exhibitions. In 1973 he gave up his full-time job at the Helsinki office of McCann-Erickson, an international advertising firm. "Since then I've lived in jeans and lived on my drawings," is how he described the lifestyle transition which occurred during this period.
By the mid-1970 he was also emphasizing a photorealism style making aspects of the drawings appear more photographic. 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 while Laaksonen exaggerates physical features and presents his ideal of masculine beauty and sexual allure, combining realism with fantasy. In Daddy and the Muscle Academy – The Art, Life, and Times of Tom of Finland examples of photographs and the drawings based upon them are shown side by side.
Tom of Finland shot many of the photographs he used as reference for his drawings; he considered them only as a tool. Contemporary art students have seen them as complete works of art that stand on their own.
In 1979, Laaksonen with businessman and friend Durk Dehner co-founded Tom of Finland Company, and in 1984 Tom of Finland Foundation dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting homoerotic artwork. Although Laaksonen was quite successful at this point with his biography on the best-seller list and Benedikt Taschen, the world's largest art book publisher had to reprint and expand a monograph of his works, he was most proud of the Foundation. The scope of the organization expanded to erotic works of all types, sponsored contests, exhibits and started the groundwork for a museum of erotic art.
In 1991, Zeitgeist Films released a video biography, Daddy and the Muscle Academy: The Life and Art of Tom of Finland. By the late 1980s Laaksonen was well known in the gay world but his "pneumatically muscled, meticulously rendered monster-donged icons of masculinity" received mainstream attention when the film – which includes hundreds of images of his work along with interviews – was shown on Finnish national TV, won a Finnish Jussi Award in its category in 1992 and was shown at film festivals worldwide. While praising the artwork's quality one critic noted the film's lauding of Laaksonen as a gay pride icon while ignoring his work's "resemblance to both S & M pornography and Fascist art" which she tied to Finland's early sexual experiences with German soldiers during World War II.
In 1995, Tom of Finland Clothing 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.
Variety announced in 2013 that Finnish director Dome Karukoski was set to make his English-language debut with a biopic of artist Tom of Finland. Helsinki-filmi is producing and has secured exclusive rights; the film will be the first biopic of the artist.
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 instances 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 Meijer, owner of a leathershop and art gallery in Amsterdam, "These works are not conversation pieces, they're masturbation pieces."
Writing for Artforum, Kevin Killian said that seeing Tom of Finland originals “produces a strong respect for his nimble, witty creation”. Kate Wolf writes that “Tom of Finland helped pave the way to gay liberation”.
Cultural impact and legacy
New York's Museum of Modern Art has acquired several examples of Laaksonen's artwork for its permanent collection. In 2006, MoMA in New York accepted five Tom of Finland drawings as part of a much larger gift from The Judith Rothschild Foundation. The trustee of The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Harvey S. Shipley Miller, said, “Tom of Finland is one of the five most influential artists of the twentieth century. As an artist he was superb, as an influence he was transcendent.”
In the late 1980s, artist G. B. Jones began a series of drawings called the "Tom Girls" that appropriated Tom of Finland's drawings. 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.
In 2013, MOCA presented Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland in Los Angeles, USA. The artist’s work was also seen in HAPPY BIRTHDAY Galerie Perrotin / 25 years in Lille, France; Leslie - Lohman Museum’s Rare and Raw in New York City, USA; and the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) in London, England.
Hudson, of Feature Inc., New York, placed Tom of Finland's work in the collections of Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art and Art Institute of Chicago. His work is also in the public Collections of: The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, USA; Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art; Turku, Finland; University of California Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley (California), USA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA; Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA; and Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles, USA.
In April 2014 Itella Posti announced they will publish a set of first class stamps in Finland including two drawings by Tom of Finland, selected to the sheet by the stamps designer graphic artist Timo Berry, and Susanna Luoto, who represented the foundation named after Tom of Finland (Tom of Finland Foundation) operating in Los Angeles. The sheet consisting of three self-adhesive stamps were published on 8 September 2014 and are accompanied by the exhibition Sealed with a Secret – Correspondence of Tom of Finland in the Finnish Postal Museum. The stamp set became a hit with its popularity surprising Posti which received pre-orders from 178 countries around the world.
- Ilppo Pohjola (author): Kari Paljakka and Alvaro Pardo (producers): Daddy and the Muscle Academy: Tom of Finland. Filmitakomo & YLE, Finland 1991. (Duration of Feature: 58 Minutes. Also features frames of Laaksonen's graphic art.)
- Kalin 1990, p. 111; Hooven 1993, pp. 84–85.
- Löfström, p. 190.
- Slade, Joseph W.: Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide, Volume 2. Pp. 545–546. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN 0-313-27568-8
- Young, Craig: Homoerotic history: Tom of Finland. GayNZ.com, 12 May 2007.
- MOCA publication, Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland, for exhibition November 2, 2013 – January 26, 2014. Bennett Simpson, MOCA curator.
- Löfström, pp. 189.
- Hooven, F. Valentine (1993). His Life and Times. New York: St. Martins Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-312-11365-X.
- Arell & Mustola, p. 15
- Bio at TOFFoundation
- Hooven, F. Valentine (1993). His Life and Times. New York: St. Martins Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-312-11365-X.
- 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.
- Suarez, 1996, pp. 150.
- The Celluloid Closet; Directors: Rob Epstein , Jeffrey Friedman (1996) UPC: 043396821071.
- Suarez, 1996, pp. 152, 158.
- Löfström, pp. 190–1.
- Suarez, 1996, pp. 152, 158.; Dyer 1983
- Löfström, pp. 191.
- Beefcake (1999); Thom Fitzgerald, writer, director, co-producer; Shandi Mitchell, co-producer; Alliance Independent Films.
- MANual Enterprises v. Day, 370 U.S. 478 in 1962; Barron, Jerome A. and Dienes, C. Thomas, First Amendment Law, St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1993, ISBN 0-314-02581-2 ; Streitmatter, Rodger and Watson, John C., "Herman Lynn Womack: Pornographer as First Amendment Pioneer," Journalism History, 28:56 (Summer 2002).
- Waugh, Thomas: Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-231-09998-3.
- Ilppo Pohjola (author): Kari Paljakka and Alvaro Pardo (producers): Daddy and the Muscle Academy: Tom of Finland: United Kingdom: Oracle Home Entertainment: 2002.
- Hooven III, F. Valentine (2012). TOM OF FINLAND LIFE AND WORK OF A GAY HERO. Berlin: Bruno Gmünder Verlag GmbH. p. 134. ISBN 978-3-86787-166-2.
- Prono, Luca: Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Popular Culture. P. 258. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. ISBN 978-0-313-33599-0
- Hooven, F. Valentine, III, Gay histories and cultures: an encyclopedia Volume 2 of Encyclopedia of lesbian and gay histories and cultures. P. 884. George E. Haggerty, editor. Taylor & Francis, 2000. ISBN 0-8153-3354-4
- Edinburgh International Film Festival highlights The Independent, Friday, 14 August 1992.
- Seattle Film Festival: Special events Seattle Times, 7 May 1992.
- Festival Diary: Bad karma and the Big Yin: The Billy Connolly Affair and trouble and strife with The Bay City Rollers. Sheila Johnston reports from the 46th Edinburgh International Film Festival Sheila Johnston, The Independent, 21 August 1992.
- “Karukoski's English-Language Debut Will Be Tom of Finland's First Authorized Biopic”. Elsa Keslassy. Variety 2013-09-13
- The Queer Encyclopedia Of The Visual Arts, Claude J. Summers, Cleis Press, 2004. ISBN 1-57344-191-0
- “Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland”, Kevin Killian, Artforum International Magazine, March 2014
- “Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland”, Kate Wolf, Artforum International Magazine (Online), November 21, 2013
- Arell & Mustola, p. 187
- Hooven III, F. Valentine (2012). Tom of Finland: Life and Work of a Gay Hero. Berlin: Bruno Gmünder Verlag GmbH. p. 233. ISBN 978-3-86787-166-2.
- Hanson, Dian (2009). Tom of Finland XXL. Cologne: Taschen. p. 275. ISBN 978-3-8228-2607-2.
- "Tom of Finland to appear on stamps in September". Itella Posti. 2014-04-13. Retrieved 2014-04-17.
"World's first homoerotic stamps produced in Finland" (audio interview). Today programme. BBC News Online. 2014-04-17. Retrieved 2014-04-17.
- "Tom of Finland stamps on sale Monday; Finland's biggest seller ever". Yle Uutiset. 8 September 2014. Retrieved 15 January 2015.
- Arell, Berndt; Mustola, Kati (2006), Tom of Finland: Ennennäkemätöntä – Unforeseen, Like, ISBN 952-471-843-X
- Hooven, F. Valentine. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. ISBN 0-312-09325-X
- Kalin, K (1990). Tom of Finland, Interview with Touko Laaksonen, Image, 3, 104–119.
- Löfström, Jan (1998), "Scandinavian homosexualities: essays on gay and lesbian studies", Journal of homosexuality, Routledge, 35 (3–4), pp. 189–206, ISBN 0-7890-0508-5
- Ramakers, Mischa. Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity and Homosexuality. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. ISBN 0-312-20526-0
- Suarez, J. A., (1996): Bike Boys, Drag Queens, Superstars: Avant Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Tom of Finland: The Art of Pleasure. Mischa Ramakers, ed. London: Taschen, 1998, ISBN 3-8228-8598-3
- Tom of Finland: The Comic Collection. Vol. 1–5. Dian Hanson, ed. London: Taschen, 2005. ISBN 978-3-8228-3849-5
- Hooven, F.Valentine III: Tom of Finland: Life and Work of a Gay Hero. Bruno Gmünder Verlag, Berlin, 2012. ISBN 978-3-86787-166-2