To those familiar with Tom of Finland, the very mention of his name brings to mind a display of prime beef that would put a butcher shop to shame. That's not an inaccurate image, but it doesn't come close to explaining the importance of Touko Laaksonen's art. His masterful drawings of the male form didn't just echo an emerging segment of gay male culture; they helped shape it.
Born Touko Laaksonen in Finland in 1920, Tom earned fans in the U.S. starting in 1957, with the publication of his first illustration in Physique Pictorial, a jolly lumberjack, shirtless and balancing on a log floating down a river. A Bob Mizer-produced magazine, Physique Pictorial boasted muscle-bound men in "health and fitness" spreads that circumvented laws prohibiting gay pornography in the United States. But more than just titillate readers, Tom of Finland sought to create a happy, masculine identity for the gay men who had otherwise only seen themselves portrayed in culture as comical sissies or psychological defects. In his essay for the Taschen collection Tom of Finland XXL, John Waters calls Tom the grand-daddy of this cultural image of the big, swaggering gay man. "His drawings are beautiful, confident, sexy, totally original and butch-elegant. ... He invented a look, and you better respect it."
Durk Dehner, the president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation, agreed. "When I was growing up, there was nothing positive about being a homosexual," he said. "He gave the young, developing homosexual imagery that they could actually attach themselves to and feel good about."
By the time the Tom of Finland Foundation was established in Echo Park in 1984, the SoCal gym boom had made those primo physiques ever-so-slightly more attainable, and Freddy Mercury and Rob Halford had rocked decidedly Tom of Finland-esque aesthetics onstage. In that same Taschen book, Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson, who once commissioned Tom of Finland-inspired costumes for the band's touring show, cites the more military-inspired aspects of the Tom of Finland look as having helped inspire the most subversively homoerotic movies in history. Writes Johnson,
The '80s blockbuster "Top Gun" drew heavily on the visual theme of uniformed male partners. Tom Cruise's Maverick character played out a heterosexual love story that could not disguise the homoerotic setting. The liberating effect of Tom's men smiling lustfully in the bright light of day cannot be underestimated. No longer confined to the subterranean meat mazes of popular porn scenarios, his finely crafted icons are now out there for all to enjoy.
Considering how international this new archetype for gay male masculinity had become, it's remarkable to think of Tom fine-tuning it in Echo Park, where he'd escape the cold Finnish winter months until his death in 1991. As a result his time here, Los Angeles benefits from the foundation's archives, which include not only the largest collection of Tom's work, but also the largest archive of erotic art in the world, at well over 100,000 items. The collection includes all manner of subject matter -- not just the homomasculine but also any art that by virtue of its erotic nature might encounter resistance from mainstream artistic society. Of course, the foundation focuses on promoting Tom of Finland art, and Dehner proudly recalled how in 1998 LACMA acquired a work of Tom's that ended up being displayed between a Hockney and a Matisse.
What perhaps makes the foundation's collection so outstanding, however, is its inclusion of artwork that even Tom of Finland diehards likely haven't seen before -- collage and photography. Some of the collages are visible at the the Tom of Finland-Bob Mizer exhibition currently at MOCA's Pacific Design Center. Image boards, in a sense, these reference pages feature the images that would eventually inspire Tom drawings, just jumbled into a more surreal anatomical combination than even his most populated artworks.
The real treasure hiding in the foundation -- in Tom's well-preserved bedroom, no less -- would have to be the photographs. Many of Tom's drawings were preceded by monochrome photographs that Tom would take of his models. Though Tom was never known for his photography, the shots are well-composed to the point that they could stand on their own as works of art. But the fact that Tom had to develop the film himself -- the subject matter would have often prevented him from going to commercial photo developers -- meant that art was truly and purely his, start to finish, conception to finished drawing.
In fact, Los Angeles has been home to few more masterful artists of the human body. Though Tom certainly focused almost exclusively on the male anatomy, he drew them in an idealized way that's unattainable except for the biggest of the big men on campus. Even with all the manly posturing, however, there's a certain kind of glee that holds these men back from full-on godhood: They're just too comfortable in their human forms, and they just find too much joy in the simple act of being human.
It's that joy that drew an eclectic mix to the opening of the Tom of Finland-Bob Mizer show in late November. True, the crowd included many gay men who grew up looking at Tom of Finland art, who were for the first time seeing them in high-res, offline, non-pirated format that allowed them to see every pencil swipe of hair on every exposed chest. But the crowd also included hand-holding straight couples, groups of women, blue-hairs and others that you might not necessarily expect at an ostensibly gay-centric, West Hollywood-based art show.
This fact may be surprising to both admirers of Tom of Finland art and those just learning about it.
Dehner has a theory about the art's potential for wide appeal. "Everyone loves Tom of Finland," he said, noting that the turnout at most exhibitions is usually less than half gay people. "Any exposure they've had to him makes them feel good." Dehner said he recalled watching the French photographer Rachel Laurent stride around the room at a 2006 exhibition of Tom of Finland art in Paris. She looked ecstatic, and when Dehner asked her what she thought of the art, she offered the following response: "I have arrived at the bastion of freedom. Displayed here are the works of a man that didn't cower or inhibit himself in his expression of what was in his heart. He represents freedom for all of us."
Indeed, that freedom may be the most fantastical element to Tom of Finland's decidedly unreal works. Walking into the MOCA exhibition, you'd most likely be impressed most by the bulges -- muscular and otherwise, leather-covered and bare. Look long enough, however, and you'll notice that the men depicted are out in the open, experiencing a level of abandon that's rare even in the most liberal of contemporary societies. "The art shows men young and buff and happy, enjoying life without inhibition," Dehner said, explaining that this love of freedom transcends gender and sexuality. "Today, women are more liberated. And straight men are much more comfortable with themselves -- not so afraid of their own. And so Tom of Finland's men are great for anyone. They give a context for where our whole culture has gone."
Dehner -- who was also partner, model and muse to Tom of Finland, and whose likeness can be seen throughout Tom's work -- doesn't hesitate to underscore the importance of an artist whose vision became part of living, breathing culture and whose vision was so uniquely his own. "His technique is truly masterful, and that's why perception of him has changed from a pornographer to an illustrator to an artist and now finally to a master artist. He did not do just one masterwork; he did several, which is very rare."
It remains to be seen how public opinion about Tom of Finland will evolve, especially in comparison to how mainstream sexual mores also change. In the book "Tom of Finland: His Life and Times," Tom revealed a measured vision of his legacy and looked toward the distant future with reserved optimism.
"I know my little 'dirty drawings' are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre, but it would be nice if -- I would like to say 'when,' but I better say 'if' -- our world learns to accept all the different ways of loving. Then maybe I could have a place in one of the smaller side rooms."
The Tom of Finland-Bob Mizer show is on diplay at MOCA's Pacific Design Center through January 26.