Didier Lestrade Explains His Vision of Tom

4 February 2011

TOM OF FINLAND, Untitled, 1987, Graphite on paper, ToFF Cat. 87.18, © 1987-2010 Tom of Finland Foundation

Encounter with Didier Lestrade. Journalist, writer, cofounder of Act-Up Paris, Magazine and Têtu, Didier Lestrade is lucky enough to own Tom of Finland originals. He explains his vision of Tom’s work in seven questions.

Hello Didier. First, let’s go back to the beginning… How did you discover Tom of Finland?
Like many people of my generation. His drawings started popping up in the 70’s in the few existing gay photo magazines. We’d stumble across a drawing, here and there, without really knowing who Tom of Finland was, his very name itself thus becoming an element of erotic obsession. We were wondering “who is this Tom of Finland?” as if he were a very handsome man, similar to his drawings, like one would imagine a Canadian lumberjack. It wasn’t long before I realized that among the numerous erotic artists of that era, he was unquestionably the most prolific and accomplished, technically speaking (only Rex and Bastille surpass him, but they are far lesser known). Above all, he invented a gay physique to satisfy the imagination when pictures of naked men were still rare. After that, I discovered his little “Kake” books that were only available in Amsterdam sex shops. He was already very famous among the gays.

Tom of Finland’s work wends its way between hyperrealism, irony, fantasy and political activism… In your opinion, is there a form of duality in his work?

No, it’s just the work of a leather man, not exactly pretty, who completely immersed himself in his vision of a very masculine man, without any hangups, endowed with a gorgeous physique. Put bluntly, Tom is a lightweight who didn’t like himself very much and who was totally enamoured of smiling, brawny men. He was therefore projecting the very essence of what the gays would later become. He envisioned a liberated sexuality, radiant, viceless – and virile. Tom is a man of vision, and we can see all of it throughout his work: every story told in his little “Kake” books is an example of a gay miracle – how men behave with other men. It always ends in smiles and laughter. A very militant idea in itself.

Is Tom of Finland a ‘pop’ artist? How to surpass the original audience of Tom of Finland?

Oh yes, he is a pop artist who considerably transcended the early sexual audience. First, Taschen did a lot to popularize his drawings. By showing erotic work as if it were pop art enough, it actually becomes pop art. Also, there’s something important about Tom’s vision. Before, his nudes with huge penises seemed daring. Today, this form of eroticism is so well-known around the world that it becomes more real. It’s like in all the comic books where the heroes’ attributes are exaggerated, but then we see that people actually try to copy these heroes – and they manage to. Let’s not forget Vivienne Westwood’s first t-shirts for the Seditionaries boutique in the late 70’s, with one of Tom’s drawings depicting two cowboys. That was the junction between gay and punk undergrounds. And from there…

Tom of Finland’s work was very controversial, especially in the late 1950’s. Physique Pictorial magazine even suggested he adopt that pseudonym… According to you, did Tom initiate a new liberation of expression?

Yes, he made many ideas relating to gay culture popular: nudes first of all, the S&M and leather side, gay fantasies, a happy sexuality, the obsession with physical appearance, and later the presence of black men, or his way of promoting condoms. What I’m trying to say is that Tom initiated, endorsed and exposed the secrets of gay culture to the general public. He is an ambassador and there is nothing more universal than drawing or photography to impart an idea. Tom also produced works on commission; I myself commissioned three drawings in 1982. Everybody could commission one or more pieces of original artwork (which were quite expensive) and he would gladly comply with everyone’s wishes: he could draw something soft, something hard, even a promotional piece for a bar or a t-shirt. But there are still many secrets to Tom’s work. For example, I am a big fan of his color drawings, which in my opinion, are far too little known.

Do you think that any man, regardless of his orientation, can identify with Tom of Finland’s characters?

I would like to think so, yes. Before, there were people who found this exaggerated beauty vaguely alienating. I didn’t. I found his work so unique, exciting, positive and innovative. There was a clear message to it. And then, later, with all of Taschen’s books, some people started saying that Tom’s work was too famous, that he had lost part of his essence when he broke into pop culture. In today’s gay community, some are so accustomed to Tom’s style that they find it banal, overused. That’s insane! It’s the goal of every artist, gay or not, to enter larger cultural spheres. If Tom was alive today, he’d be amazed to see straight young skaters or hipsters of all ages sport his drawings on their t-shirts, just ‘cause, hey, it’s a nice drawing, it means something, and it’s graphically perfect.

Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama is famous for idealizing, exaggerating and fetishizing female iconography. In a conversation we had with him, he confided that “the foundation of art is to astound”. Does this definition find a limit with Tom of Finland?

I don’t think you draw genitals that huge if you’re afraid of astounding people! But what’s extraordinary with Tom, it’s how much reality has caught up with his fantasy. When Tom first started drawing, it was inconceivable to believe that men could be so anatomically beautiful in every way. It truly was a work of fantasy. You had to tell yourself: “Ah, if only men could look like that in real life!”. And today, they really do, gay or straight. The human body has developed, just look on Tumblr how many men are living copies of Tom’s drawings. So the initial astonishment ends up becoming a reality in modern body types, and that is irrefutable evidence of art’s ability to surprise then become more accessible, to finally reach the world at large.

Previously distributed illicitly, his works are now widely recognized for their aesthetic quality and exhibited in prestigious galleries. Is Tom already a part of the collective unconscious?

Tom of Finland Foundation’s endeavor has channeled our perception of the artist’s work, primarily by protecting the pieces, then marketing them a certain way. Tom is a gay product, but everyone, gay or straight, knows Tom. In the past, people tended to laugh at his work, scoff at it a little, probably in response to its outrageousness. That laughter sometimes masked an embarrassment. He was too much. Today, Tom’s visual style has become an artistic brand, like Warhol’s Campbell soup, a generic stroke, recognizable by all – a mass culture commodity. It’s one of the rare examples of erotic art creation belonging to a very specific, even underground niche, being embraced by everyone. Barely 30 years were enough for Tom to go from best kept gay secret to universal symbol of an era.

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Misunderstanding and Oppression

“My drawings are primarily meant for guys who may have experienced misunderstanding and oppression and feel that they have somehow failed in their lives. I want to encourage them. I want to encourage this minority group, to tell them not to give up, to think positively about their act and whole being.”
— Tom of Finland, 1990

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Update: WeHo Endorses Tom of Finland Exhibit, Praises Leather Culture

by Karen Ocamb on February 8, 2011 | 11:39 AM

The local Los Angeles news media showed up Monday night expecting sparks over the controversial outdoor smoking ban – the West Hollywood City Council voted 3-2 in favor in the “first vote” (final vote comes on Feb. 22). But despite months of squabbling over “health versus freedom of choice,” the smoking ban was not the most pressing issue for many in the audience – a point Mayor John Heilman addressed immediately. He announced that the city intended to continue sponsoring the annual Tom of Finland erotic art exhibit as it has since 2003.

Controversy rattled many in the city after the Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission (ACAC) voted unanimously on Jan. 27 to not endorse the Tom of Finland exhibit. Some were aghast that the Creative City would dare censor gay erotic art. Others were profoundly disturbed by what they perceived was acquiescence by the commission – which includes three gay men and decidedly non-homophobic progressive LGBT allies – to old hurtful stereotypes suggesting gay men were a threat to children.

City Manager Paul Arevalo discussed a meeting he held Monday afternoon with a number of concerned Leather activists, including Sharp, VP of the Tom of Finland Foundation, Louie Pacheco, president of the LA Band of Brothers, and Arevalo’s Management Specialist, Mikel Gerle, who was Mr. International Leather in 2007.

Arevalo told the audience:

“I had the opportunity to express an apology to any insensitivity that may have come across. In fact, we all agreed that this was an opportunity for all of us to sit down and share ideas and to work on some of the sensitivity training that needs to occur….I thought the meeting was fruitful, productive, I expressed our continued support for the event. It’s been a fantastic event – we want to continue to partner with them and we see this as an opportunity for continued dialogue.”

Arevalo said he will try to coordinate a forum “where people can talk through some of these issues.”

Heilman noted that the controversy might actually draw more attention to the 16th annual Los Angeles Erotic Art Fair Weekend scheduled for March 25-27 in West Hollywood Park.

The usual 20 minute public comment period was extended to allow audience members to be heard. Sharp said that when he heard the decision, he wondered what he would tell the artists whose work would fill the very room in which the council was meeting.

Louie Pacheco thanked the council for their support, adding that he would like to see some sort of

Louie Pacheco, President of LA Band of Brothers
resolution to help prevent “something like this” from happening in the future. “A committee in charge of art and culture should not be allowed to censor art – just for being art, regardless of what that medium is. The reason we’re all her tonight – it’s not just the art, it’s not just the foundation but it’s my family. And it hurts us and we hope that you will take care of that.”

Sister Unity (aka Bennett Schneider, “sans eyelashes”) was erudite in his defense of Tom of Finland’s art: “often erroneously dismissed for its eroticism and the richness of its hyper-real paradigms is seen as cartoonish or mere illustration. The combination of these two things causes a homogenizing culture to lessen the art’s status from that of fine art. Andy Warhol’s images are equally exaggerated but his subject matter of culture appeals to homogenous American tastes. Sex, however, hits the Puritan button, gene of American consciousness – the one that says it’s dangerous, it’s certainly not acceptable” when out of an acceptable context.

West Hollywood, Sister Unity said, is about “providing a home for that which is deemed unacceptable.”

And that seemed to be the thrust of most of the comments, including by members of the West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board (LGAB) and members of the City Council. Councilmember Jeffrey Prang, for instance, said that the commission “made a mistake” and have since “probably had a profound change of heart.”

Dan Berkowitz, member of the WeHo Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board
Dan Berkowitz, member of LGAB and former President of the Tom of Finland Foundation, said he was “disappointed” with the vote and noted that the successful exhibition generates revenue for the city. He said:

“The reason for voting down the fair could be interpreted as antigay. Having interacted with members of the commission for several years, I can’t believe that’s what they intended to say – but nonetheless, that’s the message that came out of the meeting. Anyone who speaks in public – including me – as you may remember from about a year ago, must know that one’s words, if not chosen carefully, can be misconstrued. And I think that is what happened in this case. So I would hope that we would chose to use this as a teaching moment rather than as a punative one. It’s easy to lash out at the right wing when it slurs gays – but it’s critical to recognize that even members of our own community and our friends can send alarming messages without intending to. We owe it to them and to ourselves to find out calmly what they were really trying to say and then move on. And I personally look forward to working with the commission in the future.”

Ivy Bottini, LGAB member and “proud lesbian” who is “always vigilant” said:

“Words aren’t just words. They lead to thoughts. And I don’t believe that the members of

Ivy Bottini, member of the WeHo Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board
the ACAC commission are prejudiced – I don’t believe they’re homophobic – and that’s the really scary part because the words that they used linked gay men and children together as if they shouldn’t happen, the proximity shouldn’t happen. Our community has struggled with this for centuries – people believe that gay men should not be near children….Three gay men [on the commission] – I believe didn’t know what to say. They didn’t say anything because I think they went into some sort of shock that, ‘Oh, my God – here it is again!’

So I’m concerned that people of such good will could say those words that linked a badness with gay men and children as if a sanitization of our community was starting to begin. And we cannot allow this. We will not be sanitized. We are who we are and we have to be able to celebrate who we are. So I look forward – City Manager – to the meeting between LGAB and ACAC to sit down and talk about it. There’s a lot we have to say to each other.”

Councilmember John Duran also advocated some deep thinking on the changes happening in West Hollywood:

“When I first heard that my commissioner Dallas Dishman couldn’t get a second to his motion to endorse the festival, I was stunned about what was happening – or continuing to happen in the city of West Hollywood. This is the home of Spike, while the Spike existed – a bar that for many years enjoyed a Levi and Leather profile and posture until it was closed down. And if you got to the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Huntley today, 667, you’ll see all the accoutrement of the Leather community right there in the center of Boys Town.

West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran
So how is it possible that six out of seven members were stunned into silence over something that shouldn’t have ever been an issue at all?

There’s a creeping going in. I talked to Ivy Bottini earlier today about what was this all about? I’m going to speak with the LGAB on Thursday night about the subject they’ve chosen about the ‘thinning’ of the lesbian and gay community in the city of West Hollywood. Actually, I joked with her – it’s more about thinning hair in the city of West Hollywood because many of our lesbian and gay residents are aging. They’re becoming middle aged. And somewhat boring. And we’ve lost a lot of that energy existed in incorporation [1985] when a lot of 20 year old idealists came together to form this city and to give it life and creativity and make it on the edge and make it pretty. And 20 years have passed and a lot of these same people are aging in place comfortably in their rent controlled units.

We’re still here. Our population hasn’t thinned. It’s just graying. And a graying population brings new challenges in terms of the visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community because many of the people that are now visible are coming from other communities to come here. And that’s kind of the reality of what’s going on.

There’s a creeping scrubbing up of West Hollywood that continues to concern me – that somehow we have to adapt to the changes going on – not just in West Hollywood but within the LGBT community. We fought vigorously for marriage equality and for families with children and for gay and lesbian parenting. We fought vigorously for that because people wanted that particular lifestyle as part of their lives. But at the same time, we can’t abandon or forget the Leather Daddies and the Slaves, and the drag queens and the transgenders and all the marginalized people that have given us the essence of who we are as a culture.

It’s time for the pendulum to start to swing the other way. We have gone as far as we possibly can now with marriage and families and children and stroller as we can go. The pendulum has to swing back – to remember that we have to make room for everybody and not have one particular lifestyle trump the other. Yes, there is a West Hollywood lifestyle called ‘healthy and smoke-free and eat your vegetables and exercise daily’ Yes. That is one healthy West Hollywood lifestyle. There is also a West Hollywood lifestyle called ‘grinder and leather and late night encounters and nightclubs and smoke-filled rooms’ and yes, that is a West Hollywood lifestyle. And there are gym bunnies who smoke and there are Leather Daddies who are married and there are exceptions to the rule. But if we really are going to be a tolerant community, we have to make room for the entire picture of the diversity within the LGBT community or we will lose our soul.

So with that – I look forward to the continuing conversations with Ivy and Dan and the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board about how we bring our communities visibility back to the forefront so there will never be another time when anybody who is seen as making others ‘uncomfortable’ – whether it’s guys in leather or drag queens or anything else – the Sisters [of Perpetual Indulgence] or the transgender sex workers – Yeah, they may make people uncomfortable. But we won’t marginalize them – not here in West Hollywood.”

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