Tom of Finland: Crossing Over To The Realm Of Fine Art

Tom of Finland

I first came across the work of Tom of Finland at the Homotopia exhibition titled, “Fellow Travellers,” at Novas Contemporary Urban centre, Liverpool, in 2008. At the time, I was writing reviews for local events. As a person who appreciates and respects artists and art and their working process, my initial reaction was its familiarity and frequency, as subject matter in contemporary art today.

In many ways my interest in art began, because of a love of works from the Renaissance. I had also always related to the Greek aesthetic of beauty. It was at quite a young age that I became aware of artists who were gay, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo. Perhaps when I first saw Michelangelo’s  David and admired this incredible sculpture, I was somehow aware that I was also looking at another man’s admiration of male beauty.

Touko Laaksonen, AKA Tom of Finland was a Finnish artist. He has been described as, ”notable for his stylised androerotic and 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.” (1)

Looking back on my first visit to the Homotopia exhibition in Liverpool, I was given some guidance on the exhibition by curators who were exhibiting Tom’s work and they said to try and look beyond the pornographic connotations and to remember that the show was not necessarily for a gay audience.

Having been brought up with an artist father whose erotic work of women has sometimes been critiqued for being too pornographic for the general public to see, I related to this and felt a sense of protection towards an artist who was simply stressing very honestly and completely openly his love of drawing men, male fashion and gay erotica. Tom himself said, “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!” This is quite amusing considering that we don’t often want to confess to  putting men of war in this sexual context. However, I remember as a young girl feeling attracted towards male icons, particularly in Westerns. The Magnificent Seven film of 1960, was always one of my favourites for its iconographic figures of masculinity.

Tom of Finland uses clothing as one way of communicating his fascination with male beauty and eroticism, particularly emphasising the male form and tough male clothing as well as emphasising the male genitals, something that has been with us for centuries. One of the most popular fashion accessories of the Middle Ages was the codpiece to emphasise virility;.

Born in 1920, Tom was brought up in Kaarina, in south western, Finland. His parents were teachers in the school and they gave him a good education in arts and music. Tom like many artists was interested in the what is sometimes referred to as the ‘real world’, the world  away from security and middle-class values.The men in the ‘real world’ were hard working labourers. The tough masculine man is very much part of his influence and creative vision, masculine power and authority.

Post World War II saw the rise of the biker culture as rejecting “the organisation and normalisation of life after the war, with its conformist, settled lifestyle. Biker subculture was both marginal and oppositional and provided postwar gay men with a stylised masculinity that included rebelliousness and danger which were absent from dominant gay stereotypes.” (2)

Tom’s masculine drawings conflicted against stereotypical former images of gay men which were more effeminate. ”He 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.” (3)

Over the course of four decades Tom produced some 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing. It is worth remembering that  police activity against gay men was rife throughout the 1950s. ‘Tom’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” (4). Therefore Tom had to present his work under the beefcake genre in order to stand a chance of getting his work seen, usually by private collectors and consumers who sought out the underground gay scene.

The hypocrisy prevailed and while gay life was shunned,women were turned into sexual icons, stereotyped to the point of losing their self identity as in the case of Marilyn Monroe and pin up icons such as Bette Page who it is worth noting was put in a number of all female films by photographer Irving Klaw.

”From 1952 through 1957, Bette posed for photographs with pin-up bondage or sadomasochistic themes making her the first famous bondage model… Page alternated between playing a stern dominatrix, and a helpless victim bound hand and foot….shown gagged and bound in a web of ropes, from the film, Leopard Bikini” (5). This  was a time when moral values held in esteem women who cleaned the house and had the tea ready for their husbands returning from work!

Although my father was not gay, the images Tom created had the same kind of self enquiry and social enquiry upon sexuality and relationships that my father and many artists have in their erotic drawings. This is different from pornography. Pornography, I don’t feel is about self reflection or social enquiry or the emotions of the artist or photographer who created the image. It is not about the emotions of the person being photographed, it is I feel about people being objectified so that an audience can take what they want from that image without the interference of the artist and the model. Whether people agree or disagree with pornography is another issue and another article.

Pornography, I feel is a business in providing ‘pleasure’,for money, not a personal and inquisitive enquiry. Many women for instance are offended by pornography. They find it demeaning to women and feel it objectifies and exploits them.

I think Tom of Finland’s art is subjective. His drawings are like a diary, a personal enquiry into erotica throughout his life as an artist, his thoughts and desires of men drawn from all angles of human relationships, such as compassion, help, love, fetish, loss. They do not just state one theme.

They are not there primarily to earn money. He draws them because he is an artist, similar to the erotic art of Picasso and many other artists including the erotic works of my father, Robert Lenkiewicz

I think style of art has quite a bit to do with how erotic art is perceived. Certain styles of art are more accepted or perhaps easier for people to relate to. If that style falls slightly outside our sense of what we deem as art then it can possibly get lost in its own subject matter.

Tom’s work I feel comes out of the Pulp and  romance comics genre of the 1940s and 1950s, paperback book covers as well as the picture novel which I feel reflects the fictional, fantasy and autobiographical elements in Tom’s work. His later more photo realist style makes aspects of the drawings appear more photographic.

The graphic novel was “a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and presented as a book.” It was considered more Sequential Art or Visual Narrative, an ‘art of communication’ more than simply an application of art.” said Eisner, American cartoonist, writer, and entrepreneur.

Comic magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters. ”Pulp covers were printed in colour on higher-quality (slick) paper. They were famous for their half-dressed damsels in distress, usually awaiting a rescuing hero’.’ (6)

Tom, I feel has subverted the original concept of comic stories and pulp by having masculine heroes desiring each other rather than women. He has also taken it away from the magazine genre and developed the style for his own expression of erotica and relationships, a much more personal and intimate enquiry into sexual relations and society using the idea of romance and relationships between men, to be the focus of his work.

‘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.” (7)

Tom Laaksonen passed away in 1991. His legacy has influenced an entire generation. In 1984 the Tom of Finland Foundation was dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting homoerotic artwork. Although Tom may have been criticised by some in the Art world, he remained true to himself and opened up another important thread to how the public perceive art. Tom of Finland’s work covers six decades. His social and personal impact has placed his work within the Fine Art realm.

His works can be seen in the ICA Exhibition “Keep Your Timber Limber” (Works on Paper) 19 June 2013 – 8 September, 2013

Words: Alice Lenkiewicz ©Artlyst 2013 Top Photo: ICA London

Notes:1,2,3,4,5,6,7 (wikipedia)

ICA London June 2013