2020 marks the centenary of the legendary gay erotica artist Tom of Finland. Ahead of an exhibition recreating his first gallery show in Berlin (a welcome dose of bondage while Berghain itself turns into an art gallery), FRONTPAGE spoke to Durk Dehner, co-founder and president of the Tom of Finland Foundation, to discuss the artist's enduring - and arousing - legacy.
It’s hard to say how one gets to know the work of Tom of Finland. To start with, his aesthetic is, quite literally, all around us. His distinct style of man-on-man action has penetrated pop culture to an extent few other forms of erotica (if any) have come close to, reaching a level of ubiquity that is almost Warholian in terms of sheer exposure. Tom’s mustachioed muscle daddies can be found on everything from art books, tote bags, and coffee mugs, in addition to a world of branded erotic supplies encompassing dildos, butt plugs, and fisting gloves.
But regardless of its commercial appeal, the Tom of Finland aesthetic holds a significance that dwarfs even the most celebrated iconographies of contemporary art. In his unabashed celebration of gay sex at its most hardcore, Tom empowered generations of men by creating a visual language which validated underground practices into a sensuous realm of aspiration. So much of what we consider “fetish culture” today sprung from the pages of Tom’s illustrations, his work giving rise to real-world manifestations in gay clubs and sex shops around the globe.
“[Tom] stands for freedom,” says Durk Dehner, nicely summing up his appeal. A passionate devotee of Tom’s work who served as the artist’s right-hand man for decades, Dehner co-founded the Tom of Finland Foundation in 1984 and still serves as the organization’s president. He also looks every bit the part, bringing a grizzled, beefcake charm to what, at his age, must technically be considered not a leather daddy so much as a leather granddaddy.
“He was the equalizer,” Dehner continues. “He wanted an equal playing field for everybody to be uninhibited. It takes a brave artist to draw things that are not politically correct, to actually express things as they are. Artists must all go through this process, thinking of how much they are willing to actually subdue, subject, or restrict themselves. But this was so simple to Tom, and that’s why young artists are so inspired by him.”
Dehner is speaking to me from Los Angeles, where he oversees the Tom of Finland House - a registered historical landmark which includes a gallery space, a vast archive of erotica by Tom and others, and a program offering residencies to artists from around the world (their list of collaborators includes everyone from JW Anderson to Cali Thornhill-Dewitt). The pandemic has of course disrupted operations, and Dehner stresses the loss of community resources that the Foundation offers to all walks of life, not just the strapping, muscled kind. “Young people come here and they are so enthralled and inspired by what hangs on the walls of the Tom house,” he says. “It transforms them.”
It is particularly devastating that the Foundation’s plans have been so affected in 2020, as this year is one of a landmark celebration - the artist’s centenary. And though many of the events honoring Tom’s legacy have been downsized, a very special exhibition arrives in Berlin on September 12 and will be on view through the end of the year. Titled ‘Tom of Finland: Made in Germany,’ the show is an exact recreation of Tom’s first solo exhibition in Germany from 1976, which was held at sex shop called Revolt in Hamburg, along with a selection of some of his other works shown in the country at the time. In faithfully duplicating the era in which Tom shot to mainstream prominence, it pinpoints just how timeless his work remains.
Born 100 years ago in the small town of Kaarina, Finland, Touko Vallo Laaksonen was by all accounts a shy young man. The subject that would come to dominate his life appeared early on; at the age of five, he spied on his neighbor, a muscular farmboy, who along with other laborers at the time would be the inspiration for his initial forays into erotic drawing, completed in private and later destroyed. Another formative experience was the onset of WWII, in which Laaksonen served as an anti-aircraft officer. It was here where many attribute his fascination with men in uniform, seemingly confirmed by the fact that wartime conditions facilitated his first homosexual encounters.
After the war, Laaksonen supported himself with freelance artwork, including for the legendary advertising firm McCann Erickson, while continuing to craft erotic drawings in his spare time (a nearly exact parallel career path afforded to fellow erotica maestro Hajime Sorayama). This being the 1950s, homosexuality constituted a serious criminal offense and, likewise, any pornography pertaining to it was strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, nature finds a way, and those seeking pictorial representations of semi-nude men for personal use had plenty of options in the form of fitness and outdoor magazines. At the persistent urging of a friend, Laaksonen caved and submitted some of his drawings to one such publication – the US-based Physique Pictorial – and adopted the moniker ‘Tom’ to maintain anonymity. The Spring 1957 issue of the magazine was subsequently emblazoned with a scene of hunky lumberjacks courtesy of Tom, the first of many such collaborations, and by winter of that same year he was given a new nickname by the publication’s editor. Hence, Tom of Finland had arrived.
Due to censorship laws, Tom’s work of this era did not depict any overtly homosexual acts, yet their enormous erotic potential was self-evident. But what cemented the appeal of Tom’s work was its unbridled masculinity, an enshrinement of the male form that, at the time, was wholly separate from a homosexual identity. “The younger generations, some of them didn’t really understand Tom's male masculinity,” Dehner explains. “Some of them interpreted it as just trying to fake that you were straight, and we clearly needed to educate them on what that was about. In that, [masculinity] was the thing that was denied to us from the 1940s, ‘50s, into the ‘60s. We were denied male masculinity in that it was reserved for heterosexual males. If you were a gay male, you had to be flamboyant and a ‘sissy’ or ‘fairy.’ He empowered that whole generation to feel good about themselves as they were, as gay men, and to feel proud of their identity. He prepared them for what was next really, which was gay liberation and standing up for our rights.”
As an individual who identifies as queer/trans-femme, I admittedly can be quick to dismiss elements of gay culture that are focused solely on the cisgender male gaze, finding it inarticulate of my experience at best, exclusionary at worst. Yet the context in which Tom created his work could not be any less exclusionary. His ‘leather daddy’ figures, for example, are now seen by many as lying on the more intimidating side of gay fetish culture, and yet this imagery finds its roots in Tom’s liberal adoption of the aesthetics of 1950s biker culture. Crystallized by Marlon Brando’s iconic, drool-worthy performance in the 1953 film The Wild One, this subculture was readily embraced by gay men for its anti-establishment status in post-War American society in addition to legitimizing a form of empowerment, of reclaiming toughness as a means to combat discrimination.
In 1962, the landmark Supreme Court ruling MANual Enterprises v. Day decided that nude male photographs were no longer obscene, paving the way for the gay pornography industry and a glut of new work for Tom, whose drawings now took a turn towards the more explicit. By 1973, he was able to fully support himself with his erotica alone, and it’s around this time that Dehner entered into the picture. The foundation director can recall the exact moment he first saw a Tom of Finland artwork: “It was in a bar in New York in 1976, and I just happened to be going past a small poster on the wall and I absolutely gravitated right to it, I was fixated on it. To this day, I can't really say that it was the image, but what was within that image. Tom had the ability to embed his messaging into his drawings, a feeling that really evokes something in people. That's what it did for me that day in that bar. I actually stole it off of the wall and hid it in my pocket!”
Through some connections, Dehner tracked down Tom’s address and wrote him a fan letter expressing his admiration, something Tom had grown accustomed to from his growing legions of fans. Their relationship had solidified to such an extent that by 1978, Dehner was acting as Tom’s liaison and hosting events for him around the country. “I got to witness dozens and dozens of young guys at that time who were like 20 years old,” Dehner recalls, “They were saying, ‘You are so important in my life. You were the father that I never had. You were the one that gave me the role models that I could grow up and feel good about being homosexual.’ Really what Tom was for those young generations then was a role model of positivity, of sex positivity, of feeling happy and well adjusted.”
Dehner helped Tom establish a mail order company, a publishing firm, and eventually, the Foundation. As it continues to do today, the Foundation’s chief aim was to provide a space for the community outside the more hedonistic realm of nightlife. And the resources it provided could not have come at a better time when it was founded in the mid-1980s; the vilification of gay sex and homosexual culture at large reached new heights with the ensuing AIDS crisis. After fighting their way from the “back of the bus,” as Dehner puts it, the ‘80s provided a painful set of challenges for those issuing a message of sex positivity – especially when the term “sex positivity” itself would take on a mournful new meaning.
“The phone wouldn’t stop ringing a minute,” Dehner remembers of that era. “He had to survive the guilt because his young models were dying, and he had been the one that had encouraged them to be out, to be free, to enjoy sex and to really not feel guilt. I was encouraging him that it wasn't his fault and that what he was doing was good, it was still good. What we needed to do now was to save as many lives as we could. We did a whole program where he encouraged the use of condoms, and we did that for the rest of the six years of his career. He regained his composure about this, about being proud. But he left with a little bit of sadness.”
Laaksonen passed away from emphysema in 1991, and though his final years were spent aiding a dire public health crisis for his community, he lived long enough to see his work grow into an empire whose legacy was built on giving back to those who had been marginalized their entire lives. It is a remarkable accomplishment, artistic or otherwise, and Dehner feels that Tom left contented. “Tom was very proud of being a pornographer. He felt like he was the avenue to reach younger generations coming to terms with their sexuality. He acknowledged that right from the beginning, it had always been his intention to change the way people thought about themselves. And he did.”
With the advent of Grindr and other hookup apps, not to mention the world of internet porn, gay sex culture has undergone a seismic shift in how it is both marketed and consumed since Tom’s lifetime. And, accordingly, public attitudes towards Tom’s work have presented a number of scrutinies and analyses in the time since. Much criticism has been levied toward the predominantly white cast of men depicted in his work, and an even more vocal contingent of critics have expressed dismay that his figures of men in power – policemen, soldiers, and, in a few very incendiary drawings, Nazis – are in fact glorifying the negative attributes of these dynamics.
Such arguments are sound in theory, but time and again, Tom defended his most controversial pieces, urging detractors to view them in context. He repeatedly expressed his repulsion towards fascism, quipping that he had drawn Nazis only because they had “the sexiest uniforms” in his menagerie of military studs. And while few could deny his figures of policemen are anything but a glorification, his drawings were ultimately an extremely subversive affront against one of the burgeoning gay community’s most violent oppressors. In turning them into sex objects, Tom was able to deconstruct and objectify their power, making them a bit more toothless to his audience in the process.
Dehner can’t stress enough that Tom’s work was created solely as an expression of desire, specifically, the notion that many desires thrive and exist simply because they are taboo. “So many desires are not politically correct, yet they exist,” he explains. “They exist because humanity in our form wants the desire in and of itself; they have urges, they have cravings. I have had Israeli men who I've had sex with who want me to be a domineering Nazi for them. Do they think badly about themselves? I don't think so, but they have something inside themselves that craves that and wants it, and wants to experience it. There's no logic to it, there's no rationale to it. It just is; it just exists.”
It is hardly an exaggeration to describe Tom of Finland as one of the most influential visual artists of the 20th century, but we’re not likely to ever see his work canonized in the manner of any of his peers – throbbing crotches and spank boys don’t seem to translate well to family-oriented museum crowds. So it is perhaps more important to assess his work in terms of how it affects the psyche of those who have been drawn to it throughout the years: its capacity to be freeing. This is of course apparent at a surface level, where the pastimes of his well-endowed hunks are depicted in a level of detail usually reserved to toilet stall scrawlings and online chat rooms.
But such an entertaining carnal cornucopia belies the powerful sense of inhibition as revolt; the sense of radical sex as radical protest. The human heart (read: genitalia) works in mysterious ways, and few artists seem to have come as close as Touko Vallo Laaksonen to understanding it. Or if not understanding it, at the very least, knowing how to get it off.
'Tom of Finland: Made in Germany' opens in Berlin Saturday, September 12.