Few individuals had more of an impact on contemporary gay life than a quiet, talented Finnish man named Touko Laaksonen. His first name, Touko, means “May” in Finnish, and is synonymous with springtime and fresh beginnings. At an early age he developed his talent for drawing, which led him to a career as a graphic artist in a Helsinki advertising agency during the 1950s. But it wasn’t his creativity doing ad copy that changed the world. It was the portrayal of gay men from his drawings that revolutionized how we, and the larger public, view gay men.
Prior to his emergence in pop culture, homosexual men were typically seen as either effeminate pansies, or intellectuals, or both. They were rarely sexualized, instead they were either meant to be laughed at as harmless clowns or feared as predators. This disconnect reflected the stigmatization of being gay, as a way for society to keep us apart and separate. During this repressive era, Laaksonen’s work began appearing in the only venues available to him, the muscle magazines that were the predecessors to today’s popular fitness magazines. Mizer’s “Physique Pictorial” magazine Laaksonen found an audience and Mizer began calling Tom, “Tom of Finland”.
Laaksonen created a fantasy, based on influences from rural Finland combined with the gay leather sub-culture, that influenced reality. Through his images we see ourselves, men playfully flirting, seducing, and celebrating our bodies.
For a time, Tom’s drawings were not viewed as high art and now they hang in major museums. There is obviously a slightly kitschy quality to his drawings. What’s found in Tom’s work is a story one can imagine with the not-so-subtle subtext that these masculine, virile men have a mutual attraction. The contexts may differ, but the morale of the drawing is inevitably the same: the possibility of sexual gratification is available for all men, whatever the social class or milieu. This simple realization is still a pleasure even today, where despite the careful preening and filters used by all of us on social media there is still a democratization of sorts. As the saying goes, “there is a lid for every pot,” and in Tom of Finland’s case there is a cock for every cock.
With this exhibition that debuted on May 8th, the 102nd anniversary of Laaksonen’s birth, there is a wide range of photos, paintings, sketches, and completed drawings from many other artists who were inspired, or contemporaries, of Tom. Careful attention was paid to ensure a cross section from around the world, including a marvelous drawing from the Japanese artist Minoru. Along with its sister exhibit currently showing at the Biennele in Venice, Italy, this is the first time such a large number of the Tom of Finland’s permanent collection have been shown outside of the United States.
Accompanying the works is Laaksonen’s longtime business associate, friend, confidante, and muse Durk Dehner. During his interview with Instinct, Durk recounted their long association together and said that this dual exhibition in Venice and Paris as part of kicking off Gay Pride is at its core, a celebration of life. “[Tom’s] life’s work was about bringing the joy of being gay out into the open, and to have pride in all kinds of sexual expression.” The two began their relationship via mail, and finally met in person at an exhibition of Laaksonen’s work in 1978 at New York City. A photograph from that initial encounter is the first image one sees upon beginning the exhibit. It is a wonderful reminder that sometimes all it takes is the spark of a friendship that can set the entire world ablaze.
The show runs through Gay Pride weekend in Paris.