4 February 2011
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.