Tom of Finland: The Grand Master of Homoerotic Art Exhibits at WEAM
By James Cubby
Tom of Finland, the pseudonym of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen, is best known for his stylized in-your-face erotic and fetish art depicting heavily muscled men with large penises in tight or partially removed clothing. Some may be shocked by the work of Tom of Finland, who was labeled as the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade, however, his work has been exhibited in some of the world’s most important museums and galleries and is included in the permanent collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design to name a few. “The MoMA in New York owns a finished drawing depicting a young man and several studies,” states art collector Volker Morlock, who has been involved with the Tom of Finland Foundation since 1991 and is curator of TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks, the major exhibition of Tom of Finland homoerotic drawings that opened at the World Erotic Art Museum during the Miami Beach Pride Weekend.
You can see the exhibition until July 31st at
World Erotic Art Museum
Naomi Wilzig, owner/curator of WEAM, a fan and collector of Tom of Finland’s art, admits that the imagery shocked her when she first encountered it. “At first I was turned off by it. Many of the depictions seemed to show men torturing or hurting each other. I was not astute enough to realize it was a comic fantasy interpretation of all the myths about gay men. I later began to explore the artistic value and originality of the works and now have a much better appreciation of his works and their importance to both the gay and straight world. It serves an educational function as well as an exciting experience.”
The work of Tom of Finland can indeed be shocking. The artist produced approximately 3,500 illustrations mostly of a sexual nature. His men were masculine men, men wearing uniforms, men in work clothes, rugged men, and his men were most always, when wearing clothing, adorned in tight trousers that showed an oversized bulge. Most of the artist’s drawings were of two or more men in a situation either before or during sexual activity. It is noted that most of the manly subjects were versatile, meaning they enjoyed the bottom as well as the top role in sexual intercourse.
Until the seventies Laaksonen’s work was mostly shown underground and in private collections. The decriminalization of male gay pornography allowed his work to become more mainstream and very popular among the gay community. “As society progresses and becomes more tolerant and accepting, so does once marginalized art find new audiences,” explains Volker Morlock, curator of TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks. “By depicting masculine men enjoying their sexuality free of shame, Tom of Finland has had more of an effect on global culture than many other 20th century artists.” The images of Tom of Finland, known as the grand master of homoerotic art, helped smash the stereotypes of gay men. “Many people think all gays swish and are effeminate,” says Wilzig. “To the contrary, and reality, Tom exposes the strength, power, and true manliness of his subjects.” The images of Tom of Finland created new role models for gay men and the gay community embraced his work.
The work of Tom of Finland may also have helped influence fashion and culture or possibly just reflected the ever-changing sexuality of the times. Gay men, as depicted by Tom of Finland, were strong masculine images, not like the effeminate stereotypes represented in mainstream media.
While the artistic merit of the art of Tom of Finland has been continuously challenged and debated for years, his art remains popular not only among the gay community but with art collectors. “The cultural impact of Tom of Finland is incredible,” said biographer F. Valentine Hooven III, author of Tom of Finland: Exposed! “Men are still emulating his types – the biker, the lumberjack, the sailor, the cowboy, etc. Did Tom type cultural identity or did he reflect it?” Wilzig, WEAM’s curator, also commented on the artist’s positive masculine depiction of gay men. “Showing romance, bondage, the fetish for leather and uniforms, the love of motorcycles, and all male subjects of pleasure.”
According to the Tom of Finland Foundation,” Tom’s influence on the fashion industry began around 1950. In a case of art-imitating-life-imitating-art, Tom drew his leather men in outfits reminiscent of World War II military uniforms, but he rendered the clothing both tighter and sexier, tailoring it to his own specifications. Leather-clad bikers of the period, gay and straight, subsequently viewed the images and had their own gear customized to emulate the artist’s specifications. In the ‘60s, a swimsuit company commissioned Tom, requesting that he draw his men wearing their designs. Naturally, Tom filled their baskets to overflowing and made the men look as sexy as hell.”
“Iconic photographer/filmmaker Bruce Weber noted his debt to Tom in an essay that introduces Volume III of the Foundation’s Tom of Finland Retrospective, and Tom’s influence is clearly visible in the cutting-edge designs of contemporary fashionistas John Bartlett, Gucci’s Tom Ford, and the aforementioned Jean-Paul Gaultier, to name only the most obvious,” states Durk Dehner, cofounder of Tom of Finland Foundation. There was even a Tom of Finland Clothing line (1995-2002) that teamed New York designers Gary Robinson and David Johnson. “The designers produced a collection that brought the artist’s vision to three-dimensional life and was embraced by fashion editors, featured in music videos, and covered prominently on both fashion television and the E-Channel,” said Dehner. “The low slung, “hip-hugger” jeans that are currently the industry standard reflect Tom’s influence as well.”
How apropos that the opening of TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks is during the weekend of Miami Beach Gay Pride, as the artist depicted his men as proud images. His art helped change the way the world’s view of gay men. His work was always positive. Tom of Finland’s biographer described the art as “guilt-free, proud without all the excess baggage and subliminal messages.” During the seventies, the Tom of Finland images reflected the “look” that was adopted by large numbers of gay men, but today there is no one “look” for gay men, yet Laaksonen’s images are still popular and used extensively in gay publications, promoting gay bars, clubs and events. Locals may recall the Tom of Finland party held at the popular nightclub Warsaw during White Party Week in the nineties.
Volker Morlock, curator of TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks, is editor of the anthology, Tom of Finland Retrospective III, and consultant for Taschen Publishing on the books Quaintance and Tom of Finland XXL. The exhibition, which includes 20 original artworks, 20 vintage magazines featuring Tom of Finland layouts and stories, illustrates the development of Finland’s techniques and the breadth of his subject matter through five decades of his prolific work. Since Morlock is a collector and published art critic we asked him how Tom of Finland’s art ranks. “His artwork is amazing,” stated Morlock. “And I like it tremendously!”
The exhibition also includes “a video experience featuring Tom actually talking about his motives and objectives, and experiences, and showing many more artworks,” adds Naomi. “As the title TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks suggests, this exhibit shows in chronological order some true icons of the artist’s body of work,” explains Morlock. ”This exhibit is a rare opportunity to discover not only what a skilled draftsman Tom of Finland was, but also enjoy his sense of humor, diversity of subject matter, and talent as a story teller. All mediums are represented: graphite, pen and ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and gouache.”
“Tom’s figures were his fantasy of the perfect male specimen,” says Wilzig. “He fantasized how he personally wanted to be. Other artists have emulated him and created similar types of artwork.” Since TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks opens on the weekend of Miami Beach Gay Pride, I suggested to Naomi that she find men similar to those depicted in the Tom of Finland images and hire them to walk around advertising the exhibition. “If those men were walking around, they would be devoured by men and women alike, full time, not available to march in a parade,” replied Wilzig. “However, I truly hope the community at large will take the time and effort to come and enjoy this amazing exhibit.”
TOM OF FINLAND: Male Masterworks opens Saturday, April 14, with a reception at 7 p.m. at Naomi Wilzig’s World Erotic Art Museum. The exhibition runs until July 31. The World Erotic Art Museum is located at 1205 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. For more information visit www.weam.com or call 305.532.9336.
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