Western artists have long considered portrayals of the ideal male physique to be a deserved focus of aesthetics. In Ancient Greece, Lysippos of Sikyon’s most recognizable sculpture, Apoxyomenos (aka The Scraper), depicts a nude athlete scraping oil from his body after exercising. The muscle-toned youth exhibits a chiastic stance echoed in nude male statuary through the centuries, most notably in Michelangelo’s most famous work, David.
The idealized masculine image, however, isn’t confined to classical sculpture. Over the ages, portrayals of strapping, disrobed young men have featured prominently in paintings as well, evidenced by the oeuvre of Thomas Eakins, a 19th century Philadelphia-based artist whose work frequently showcased his male students sunbathing in the buff.
The pendulum of art—like the history which produces it—constantly swings from liberalism to conservatism. Its blade regularly vacillates between an exaltation of the male form and the form’s condemnation. Often during these darker, sexually repressed eras, fields of creativity would suffer from suppression and censorship. During the Middle Ages, for instance, the Vatican castrated numerous statues, including the aforementioned Apoxyomenos, replacing statues’ phalluses with sexually neutral fig leaves.
This mentality of unease towards homoerotic imagery permeated Puritan-influenced American culture, and it was within a climate of homo-repression that artistic rebels like Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland flourished.
Considered pioneers of the 20th century male nude, both artists will be showcased in The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ new exhibit, Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland, the first American museum exhibition devoted to the works of Mizer (1922-92) and Touko Laaksonen (1920-91), the man behind the Tom of Finland name.
Adopting the pseudonym Tom of Finland for English-speaking audiences, Laaksonen regularly contributed to Physique Pictorial, his artwork first gracing the magazine’s cover in 1957 with a drawing of muscular lumberjacks at work. These libidinous log-drivers are but one example of Laaksonen usurping archetypically heterosexual personae and recasting them in a homoerotic light. At the time, gay men were generally portrayed as effeminate in films and vaudevillian theater. Laaksonen challenged this narrow-minded, homophobic perspective by cultivating the homo-masculine potential of cops, cowboys, sailors and, most prominently, bikers. Laaksonen’s renditions of the latter are what inspired our modern day leather movement.
Curated by Bennett Simpson and guest co-curator Richard Hawkins, the MOCA show features a selection of Laaksonen’s iconic and masterful drawings, collages and books, juxtaposed with Mizer’s photographs, films and a collection of his groundbreaking magazine, Physique Pictorial. Presented in collaboration with the Bob Mizer Foundation and the Tom of Finland Foundation, the exhibit seeks a wider appreciation for Mizer and Laaksonen’s art, considering their aesthetic influence on generations of artists, both gay and straight, while also acknowledging the artists’ profound cultural and social impact, most importantly in providing open, powerful imagery of queer sexuality in an era of rapidly shifting attitudes towards homosexuality.
“There’s a joyful, celebratory and sex-positive aspect to Mizer’s photographs and Tom’s drawings,” says Hawkins. “Both artists began working and publishing 20 years before Stonewall, so we know very clearly that they were ahead of their time. But I would like to think that they actually helped create a time.”
“Tom of Finland can be considered the forefather of the leather community,” says Hawkins, “in that he single-handedly perfected—through his own meldings of the sexiest aspects of biker and military leathers—what we can now readily identify as leather and fetish gear. But, in addition to that, Tom was able to create characters who were devout and self-confident enthusiasts of gay sex without even a hint of shame. In that sense, the work can be considered militant … as well as hot.“