Tom of Finland is the pseudonym by which the Finnish artist Touko Valio Laaksonen (8 May 1920 – 7 November 1991) is best known. He is known for his stylized highly masculinized 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, wearing tight or partially removed clothing.
Tom of Finland 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 at the grammar school that served Kaarina. The family lived in the school building’s attached living quarters.
He went to school 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, based on images of male laborers he had seen from an early age. At first he kept these drawings hidden, but then destroyed them “at least by the time I went to serve the army.” The country became embroiled in the Winter War with the USSR, and then became formally involved in World War II, and 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.
Tom of Finland’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, Tom of Finland submitted drawings to the influential American magazine Physique Pictorial, which premiered the images in the 1957 Spring issue under the pseudonym Tom, as it resembled his given name Touko. In the Winter issue later that year, editor Bob Mizer coined the credit Tom of Finland. One of his pieces was featured on the Spring 1957 cover, depicting two log drivers at work with a third man watching them. Pulled from the Finnish mythology of lumberjacks representing strong masculinity, he 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. This was in contrast to the then-prevailing stereotypes of gay man as an effeminate sissy, as seen in vaudeville and films going back to the first years of the industry. Tom of Finland was influenced by images of bikers as well as artwork of George Quaintance and Etienne, among others, that he cited as his precursors, “disseminated to gay readership through homoerotic physique magazines” starting in 1950. His 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 in contrast with the mainstream, medical and psychological sad and sensitive young gay man who is passive. His 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 within those cultures.
U.S. censorship codes (1950s–1960s)
Tom of Finland’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 inherently 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. Tom of Finland 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.” He reacted by publishing more explicit drawings and stylized his figures’ fantastical aspects with exaggerated physical aspects, particularly their genitals and muscles. In the late 1960s he developed Kake, a character appearing in an ongoing series of comics, which debuted in 1968.
Gay mainstream appeal (1970s – 1991)
With the decriminalization of male nudity, gay pornography became more mainstream in gay cultures, and Tom of Finland’s work along with it. By 1973, he was 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-1970s 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. Although he considered the photographs to be merely reference tools for his drawings, contemporary art students have seen them as complete works of art that stand on their own.
In 1977, as a carpenter Jim Stewart built San Francisco’s first known homoerotic art gallery, Fey-Way Studios, at 1287 Howard Street; the gallery, owned by Robert Opel, helped bring some erotic gay artists including Tom of Finland to national attention.
In 1979, Tom of Finland with friend Durk Dehner co-founded the Tom of Finland Company, and in 1984 they established the Tom of Finland Foundation dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting homoerotic artwork. Although Tom of Finland was quite successful at this point, with his biography on the best-seller list, and Benedikt Taschen, the world’s largest art book publisher reprinting and expanding 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.
Tom of Finland was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988. Eventually the disease and medication caused his hands to tremble, leading him to switch mediums from pencil to pastels. He died in 1991 due to an emphysema-induced stroke.
During his lifetime and beyond, Tom of Finland’s work has drawn both admiration and disdain from different quarters of the artistic community. He 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 Tom of Finland 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 his white characters as well.
Art critics have mixed views about Tom of Finland’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
Disillusioned with commercial art, Rex dropped out for several years but re-emerged in the 1970s as one of the leading figures visualizing the fetish and S&M (meaning sadism and masochism) subculture in New York and later San Francisco. He was much influenced, he said, by his chance discovery of a probably bootleg magazine of the drawings of Tom of Finland, which “irrevocably changed his life.” The depiction of men “having sex with men, passionately and enthusiastically” “spoke to him in a way no lover or anonymous stranger ever had” (Bo Tobin Anacabe, “Rex in the Back Room,” in Rex Verboten!, Berlin, Bruno Gmünder, 2012, p. 3-4).
Sadao Hasegawa (who lived from 1945 to 1999) cited Tom of Finland as one of his influences. His early works, directly inspired by Tom of Finland, reflected European art styles. However, beginning in the late 1980s, Hasegawa began making regular trips to Bali and Thailand, resulting in a greater focus on Asian iconography and mythology in his art.
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 exhibited their work together in New York City in the early 1990s.
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.
In 2009, Tom of Finland was posthumously inducted into the Leather Hall of Fame.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art has acquired several examples of Tom’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.” 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 1999, an exhibition took place at the Institut Culturel Finlandais (Finnish Cultural Centre) in Paris.
In 2011 there was a large retrospective exhibition of Tim of Finland’s artwork in Turku, Finland. The exhibition is one of the official events in Turku’s European Capital of Culture programme.
In 2012, Kulturhuset presented a retrospective, Tom of Finland, in Stockholm, Sweden; and Tom of Finland’s work was in the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s We the People in New York City, USA.
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.