This month, on 8 May, Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland would have turned 96 years old. As most of you know he was a Finnish artist – the honorary father of homoerotic fetish art which profoundly influenced our contemporary gay culture.
Historians have referred to him as the most significant creator of gay erotic images – some even credit him with paving the way to the modern gay liberation. During the fourty plus years of his career Tom created more than 3000 illustrations. Without any apologies, ToF‘s art features sexually heightened and exaggerated male figures in tight leather and levis and some even partially naked, which was totally verboten during that time. Most of these drawings were based on images of hyper masculine laborers and the uniformed military men of the Second World War which swept through all of Europe during his early career.
After the war while working during his day doing advertising design, his global career as the iconic gay figure ToF thrived in the 1950s with his submissions to Bob Mizer’s then contraband magazine Physique Pictorial that was based in Los Angeles. It would be a few years later that he published his now well-known comic series in Scandanavia and later through his own Tom of Finland Company.
Also happening during the 50‘s & 60‘s was the rise of the biker culture that rejected the status quo of life after the war. This taboo subculture provided postwar gay men with an über-masculinity that was previously absent from popular gay stereotypes of the time. In the mid 50‘s the first gay biker group in the USA was founded in Los Angeles – Satyrs Motorcycle Club. It is now the longest, continuously-running gay organization in America. Their club meeting places still exist to this day in their most recent incarnations as the 2 most popular gay leather bars – The Eagle LA and the Faultline – both in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, very near to the ToF house.
Parallel to this and with the popularity of his numerous underground gallery shows in London, Hamburg and Berlin, Tom of Finland began to visit the US more frequently.
It was at one of these events in NYC where he first met Robert Mapplethorpe and made the connection for a major exhibition there. This is ‚where and when‘ the outsiders of Tom‘s world finally got their first glimpse of the fantastic genre that ToF had created. And the rest is very well documented gay art history.
It was also at one of these openings in Los Angeles that ToF first met Durk Dehner who later became his main model. Durk, a leatherman himself, earned the title of 1st runner-up in the International Mr. Leather at the first IML Contest in 1979. In 1985 these long term partners founded the Tom of Finland Foundation, a not for profit corporation formed to preserve the art of ToF and to promote erotic art and emerging artists – which is currently housed in the ToF house that they both lived and worked in. During the last ten years or so of his life Tom of Finland chose to spend equal time between Helsinki and Los Angeles. And it is there on a quiet street in the hills overlooking LA that his four-story Craftsman-style house, now part museum and part community center, is still occupied by Durk and the men who are dedicated to preserving his memory.
Once named as being one of the five most influential artists of the twentieth century, the ToF legacy continues to live on in his native country with the opening this month of a major retrospective exhibition at the Taidehalle Helsinki. Many ToF pieces from throughout the span of his career will be displayed – including a few never before publicly shown works from private collectors. This event will open on the eve of Tom‘s birthday on 7th May 2016 and be on view until its closing on 7th August 2016. As an art gallery director in Amsterdam once said, „ToF works are not conversation pieces, they‘re masturbation pieces.“
So I am sure that this very special exhibition at the Taidehalli Helsinki in Finland will keep you artistically aroused for quite some time.
Anyone out there up for a trip to Helsinki this summer?
Exhibition info on www.taidehalli.fi
images courtesy of the Taidehalle Helsinki
& The Tom of Finland Foundation
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