Tom of Finland
This week, we’re going to be covering Touko Laaksonen, best known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland. He was born on May 8th, 1920, and was a Finnish artist notable for his stylized homoerotic fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. He was named Touko due to the fact that the Finnish word for the month of May is “Toukokuu,” so his parents shortened it. He has been called quote "the most influential creator of gay pornographic images" by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade.
Finland had only been independent for just three years when he was born, and outside its few cities, the country was still rough and wild. The men who populated the country were true frontiersmen—farmers, loggers, and every bit as rough and wild as the countryside in which they resided; this upbringing certainly had an effect on how he chose to express himself, artistically.
Over the course of four decades, he produced over 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing. I’ve placed a number of images over on the site, at mattachinepodcast.com, so I encourage you to check them out to get a sense of his artistic style.
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.
By the time he reached five years old, he was playing the piano and drawing comic strips. He loved art, literature and music. While still 5 years old, Touko began to spy on a neighbor, a muscular, farm boy whose name, "Urho", means "hero". Urho was the first in a long line of heroes to hold Tom's attention.
He studied in Turku and in 1939, at the age of 19, he moved to Helsinki to study advertising, by attending art school. In his spare time he also started drawing erotic images for his own pleasure. He first kept his drawings hidden, but then sadly destroyed them quote "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 enlisted into the Finnish Army in February 1940. 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 military reserve serving in Finland at that time. He stated well after that time frame: quote "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 ended in 1945, Touko went back to studying art and also took piano classes at the famed Sibelius Institute. 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 hyper-masculine 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.
Also after the war ended, he did freelance artwork - advertising, window displays, fashion design. In the evenings, he played the piano at parties and cafes, becoming a popular member of Helsinki's post-war bohemian set. He avoided the fledgling gay scene, because what were then called "artistic" bars were dominated by the flamboyant effeminacy typical of the time, and he clearly had an attraction to the hypermasculinized aesthetic. He traveled frequently, becoming very familiar with the gay cruising areas found in every major city. Still, in 1953, when he met Veli, the man with whom he would live for the next 28 years, it was on a street corner a few blocks from home.
In 1956, at the urging of a friend, 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 lumberjacks at work. The editor of the magazine credited them officially to Tom of Finland, and the name stuck. The cover image included a third working man in the background watching the two lumberjacks. 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 fully erect, quickly appeared and the pretense of being about exercise and fitness was dropped as controls on pornography were reduced. By the end of the 60s 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 (with a “K”--presumably a play on the word “beefcake”), 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. He stated: "Since then I've lived in jeans and lived on my drawings." This is how he described the lifestyle transition which occurred during this period.
‘73 was also the year of Tom's first art exhibition, in Hamburg, Germany, but that experience was so negative that it would be 1978 before he would agree to another exhibit, in Los Angeles, for which he made his first trip to America—the reason his first show was a disaster was due to the fact that all but one of the drawings were stolen... Over the next couple of years, a series of exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, with trips to America for each one, turned the shy Helsinki artist into an international gay celebrity with famous friends.
By the mid-70s he was also emphasizing a photorealism style making aspects of the drawings appear more photographic. Many of his drawings were based on photographs, but none are exact reproductions of them. The photographic inspiration was 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. However, 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. In 1981, Tom's lover, Veli, died of throat cancer; at the same time, the AIDS epidemic began to hit hard the very cities and circles of friends he had so recently come to love in America.
In 1984, the Tom of Finland Foundation was formed to dedicated to collect, preserve, and to exhibit homoerotic artwork. Still, throughout the Eighties, the trips to America continued to increase until Tom was spending six months in L.A. with Durk Dehner for every six he spent back in Helsinki.
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.
Unfortunately, in 1988, Tom was diagnosed with emphysema, and forced to curtail his beloved traveling but he did continue to draw. Tom finally succumbed to the disease on November 7th, 1991, from an emphysema-induced stroke.
In 1991, Zeitgeist Films released a video biography, Daddy and the Muscle Academy: The Life and Art of Tom of Finland. By the late 80s 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 (a rough equivalent to the U.S. Oscars) 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 begin filming a biopic of Tom of Finland. Helsinki-filmi produced and secured exclusive rights; the film is the first biopic of the artist, and was finally debuted in the USA at the Tribeca Film Festival, on April 23rd, 2017. The film, at the time of this recording, has garnered a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84%. I fully intend to check it out.
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. We’ll actually be covering Mapplethorpe’s life in an upcoming episode, so stay tuned for that.
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 leather shop and art gallery in Amsterdam, who stated "These works are not conversation pieces, they're masturbation pieces." However, it’s undeniable that his works helped pave the way for gay liberation, for the movement.
When emphysema, and the resultant medication, made his hand tremble too much for him to execute the finely detailed work for which he had become famous, Tom switched back to a childhood favourite, pastel, executing a richly coloured series of nudes in that medium almost up until his death from an emphysema-induced stroke on 7 November 1991. In spite of his own affectionate term, Tom's work must be considered more than just "dirty drawings", and given some of the credit for the change in the gay world's self-image. When Tom's work was first published, homosexuals thought they had to be imitation women, and spent their lives hiding in the shadows. Thirty-five years later, gays were much more likely to be hard-bodied sun-lovers in boots and leather, masculinity personified. Tom's influence in that direction was no accidental byproduct of his art. From the beginning, he consciously strove to instill in his work a positive, up-beat openness. When asked if he was not a little embarrassed that all his art showed men having sex, he disagreed emphatically: "I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex!"
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 that foundation, Harvey Shipley Miller, stated, “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 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. I will share with you that I actually own a framed copy of the stamps.
Thank you for listening to the Mattachine Podcast. This episode was researched, narrated, and produced by Brad Dunshee—yours truly. Our logo was designed by Matt Smith.
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