LGBTQ+ History Month: Spotlight on Tom of Finland - power, farce & identity

H. Jordan explores the impressive career of homoerotic artist Tom of Finland

H. Jordan
10th February 2021

Gay culture in post-war America achieved a certain consolidation through the ‘beefcake’ magazine. Prior to the upsurge of these publications the legally excused ‘art photography’ in circulation was primarily women in various states of undress, with the homoerotic firmly excluded from such licensed expression. 

From this disparity emerged an impulse that gave rise to the AMG (Athletic Model Guild), founded in December 1945 by Bob Mizer, and later its off-shoot publication Physique Pictoral (formed foremost so as to further justify the images Mizer was distributing). 

Here, in print, the magazine ostensibly penned for the aesthetic appreciation of the male form and fitness instruction was for many gay and bisexual men the primary access to, and means of exploring, their sexuality and as such formed a key point of departure for queer counter-culture. 

It was on the cover of the Spring 1957 issue that ‘Tom of Finland’ entered the cultural field— heralded by two well-built, well-toned, bare-chested lumberjacks balancing on top of logs surging downstream. Touko Valio Laaksonen, operating under ‘Tom’ due to its resemblance to his given name, had embarked on an advertising career in 1939 wherein he began his erotic sketches, at first for his own pleasure. These, like the image chosen for the Spring cover, principally took as their subjects the labourers Laaksonen became familiar with growing up in the Finnish countryside, particularly the lumberjack. 

Laaksonen's cover of Physique Pictorial Spring 1957 | Credit: Tom of Finland, via @MOCAlosangeles on Twitter

With Tom’s induction into the armed forces at the outbreak of World War Two, another key-sign of homoerotic masculinity entered his periphery: that of the ‘man in uniform’— particularly (and decidedly not unproblematically) those of the German Wehrmacht. Finland was cobelligerent with Nazi Germany in mutual opposition to the USSR (until 1944, when Finland switched sides), resulting in the presence of German outfits in Helsinki where Tom was based. The obscurity and confusion of the frequent blackouts provided cover for numerous hook-ups with men he’d lusted after— German soldiers among them. 

Depictions of men in Nazi uniform make up a small part of Laaksonen’s body of work, and Tom himself recognised the need to publicly and explicitly distance himself from racist and fascistic ideologies, though he admits that he “of course […] drew them anyway—they had the sexiest uniforms!" (For a problematization of similar fascinations with such an aesthetic I recommend Susan Sontag’s essay Fascinating Fascism)  

Most significant of all for Tom’s mature work was the aesthetic of America’s growing Biker subculture (well known particularly through Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of them)—one which afforded an anti-establishment aesthetic and empowerment through the open display of machismo, and in doing so afforded Laaksonen a means to consolidate his masculine aesthetic whilst still speaking to the marginalised experience of gay men at the time. 

Credit: @tomoffinlandfoundation on Instagram

 

In uptaking and interweaving these various strands Tom consolidated a new image for the burgeoning gay counterculture: the homosexual man was no longer the commonplace image of an effeminate ‘sissy’ (one typically heavily inflected through a medicalized and psychologized framework) but rather someone out and proud, comfortable in their physicality and thriving on the margins. Even Tom’s depiction and eroticization of figures of power (most frequently cops) contain a powerful auto-critique: as sex objects such apparatuses of oppression are rendered toothless, their power farcical. The foundational element of machismo was itself met with interrogation through his collaborative efforts with G. B. Jones, the latter converting the male-on-male gaze to female-on-female in her Tom Girls series. 

Such is the radical— though complex —innocence of Tom’s work. Or as Tom himself affirmed: “I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex!" 

Credit: @tomoffinlandfoundation on Instagram
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AUTHOR: H. Jordan
Second Year Philosophy student with an interest in aesthetics, politics, ethics and their intersections.

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