Tom of Finland (1920-1991)

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Tom of Finland (1920-1991)

After 30 years of limited circulation in gay magazines and exhibitions in gay clubs, Tom of Finland's frankly pornographic drawings have enjoyed a vast popularity since the 1970s: They have been exhibited worldwide and even mainstream publishers have produced collections of his work. Tom of Finland is now considered, in the words of his biographer, "the foremost name in gay erotic art" and the critic Nayland Blake has defined him "one of the gay world's few authentic icons," noting Tom's influence on artists as different as Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A foundation was established a few years before Tom's death to preserve and perpetuate his work and, in the 1990s, Tom of Finland's influence has even extended to fashion, as the name of the pornographer has become a trademark for a line of male clothes.

Tom of Finland was born Touko Laaksonen in 1920 in Kaarina, then a rural area in the southwestern part of Finland. In 1939, after graduating from high school, Laaksonen went to art school in Helsinki to study advertising, but he soon had to suspend his studies because of World War II. After the war he completed his degree and also learned to play the piano at the renowned Sibelius Institute. In these early post-war years, Laaksonen kept his "dirty drawings" (as he liked to call them) to himself and earned his living by working as a freelance advertiser during the day and playing the piano at parties and cafés in Helsinki's bohemian districts in the evenings. It was not until 1957 that Laaksonen decided to submit some of his less graphic drawings (which he signed as Tom of Finland) for publication in Physique Pictorial, an American muscle magazine. The editor was so enthusiastic about them that the cover of the Spring 1957 issue of the magazine featured a drawing by Tom of Finland.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, Tom of Finland's drawings were published regularly in American and European magazines and sold to private publications all over the world; but homosexual art did not sell very well at the time and Tom of Finland could not give up his advertising job any earlier than 1973, the same year of his first European exhibition. Five years later Tom of Finland went to the United States for the first American exhibition of his drawings in Los Angeles. During this trip he met Durk Dehner who was to become Tom of Finland's successful manager and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation. After the death of his companion of 28 years, Veli, in 1981, Tom of Finland divided his life equally between Finland and the United States until his own death ten years later. In 1987 the anthological volume, Tom of Finland Retrospective, was published to such a great success that a companion volume, Retrospective II, was also produced. Both volumes document Tom of Finland's career from the naturalist drawings of the late 1940s to the 1987 "safe-sex" poster urging the use of condoms, passing through his mature work featuring perfect physiques, exaggerated poses, and improbable sizes.

The characters in Tom of Finland's drawings are mostly men in uniform (soldiers, policemen, sailors, lumberjacks, and bikers in leather) involved in homosexual sex of all kinds and in every (im)possible position. Their huge pectorals and muscles, their perfectly-rounded bottoms and their enormous penises point to the exaggerated maleness of Tom of Finland's men, an iconography that goes against the dominant representation of gay men as effeminate and is thus an important point of reference for the leather gay subculture. Tom of Finland's drawings counteract also the enduring stereotype of "the sad and unhappy homosexual": the men in them are clearly having a lot of fun and are proud of their sexual orientation. Tom of Finland once declared that when he started to draw, "a gay man was made to feel nothing but shame about his feelings and his sexuality. I wanted my drawings to counteract that, to show gay men being happy and positive about who they were." Even if some of Tom of Finland's drawings take place in prisons or police-stations or depict sadomasochistic situations, there is always a strong sense of play underlying them and drama never intervenes.

A complex network of looks takes place in most of Tom of Finland's drawings. As Nayland Blake has pointed out, Tom of Finland has challenged the framework of the single gaze of traditional pornography where the object presents itself passively to the eyes of the viewer. In Tom of Finland's drawings there is an interaction of looks between the different characters, which complements the gaze of the viewer. Often the two men having sex in the foreground are observed by a third man in the background. Sometimes the characters even respond to the gaze of the viewer, as in the case of Tom of Finland's re-elaboration of Michelangelo's David (commissioned by the conservative Italian film-director Franco Zeffirelli). Tom of Finland's David, much better endowed than Michelangelo's, wears a defiant look on his face and seems to be telling the viewer: "I know what you're looking at."

Tom of Finland's oeuvre is a lot more than just a series of "dirty drawings." As Dennis Forbes and Fred Bisonnes have pointed out, when the cultural history of the late twentieth century's Gay Liberation Movement will be written, Tom of Finland will have to be acknowledged as having created an effective iconography for part of the gay world.

—Luca Prono

Further Reading:

Blake, Nayland. "Tom of Finland: An Appreciation." In Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, edited by Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty. Durham, Duke University Press, 1995.

Forbes, Dennis, and Fred Bisonnes. "Tom of Finland—An Appreciation." In Tom of Finland Retrospective. Los Angeles, London Press, 1988.

Hooven, Velentine F., III. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.