Tom of Finland: Pioneer of queer sexuality

As the burgeoning gay rights movement gained momentum in the United States in the 1960s, a Finnish painter captured the community’s new self-confidence in his works: Tuko Laaksonen’s hyper-masculine portraits of bikers, cowboys and sailors faded with age. – Portraying the old stereotypical gay man as an effeminate dandy.

A famous painting by Tom of Finland (Tom of Finland Foundation).
A famous painting by Tom of Finland (Tom of Finland Foundation).

His illustrations show extremely masculine types flaunting their hard bodies in tight leather outfits, celebrating sex with other men.

Laaksonen, who went by the nickname Tom in Finland after his European homeland, started an aesthetic revolution within the gay scene: “When he started painting, there were no real role models for gay men,” says Richard Villani, creative director of Tom. Finland Foundation told DW. “More than anything, Tom wanted to give queer men a positive idea of ​​their sexuality.”

After the Stonewall riots of 1969, his sketches of muscular men struck a nerve, providing long-needed icons that embodied the idea that love between men was perfectly acceptable.

The hero of the skin scene

More than 30 years after his death, Tom’s rebellious spirit still fascinates.

Tom of Finland Art and Culture Festival 2023 is being held on the site of a former women’s prison in the area of ​​Lichterfelde in Berlin from May 12-14. The festival, now in its 29th year, will bring together artists, galleries and patrons from around the world, as well as many fans of the gay pioneer.

Villani, who organized the three-day festival, knows there’s something magical about the painter’s sex-positive messages: “It’s about joy, fun and laughter. All the characters in his paintings are having a good time together.”

In his 50s, Tom was already making a living from his erotic images, traveling between Europe and America, living in Los Angeles for six months until his death in 1991.

He left his mark on both continents and inspired entire sub-cultures.

“He was the father of leather,” Villani says of the artist, who first developed his fascination for uniforms as a young officer in World War II. “Then he started seeing how beautiful leather looked in his sketches. And suddenly he was painting these leather uniforms and boots. He was painting, he was living and he was enjoying leather.”

It should be noted that a controversial aspect of some of his works is that they contain references to Nazi uniforms; But the artist, who was clearly not afraid of the taboo, explained during his lifetime that although he hated the ideology of the Nazis, he felt the clothes were “the sexiest”. Later in his career, he rejected these works altogether.

To this day, “skinny lovers” and “muscular hunks” are an integral part of the gay scene. They keep Tom of Finland’s fantasy alive in bars, fetish circles or pride marches.

Revolution or toxic obsession with beauty?

Tom’s paintings bear witness to the struggle for equality. Christopher Conner, a sociologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia who researches beauty ideals within the American LGBTQ community, says the cult of the muscular body stems from the fact that gay men always have to compensate for their perceived femininity bias. Some gays buck this bias by wanting to be the manliest guy out there, Connor adds.

However, living up to such ideals is often impossible. According to Connor, many factors are decisive, starting with your own social background: “You have to be able to afford proper training in the gym and also the right diet. You also have to know which exercises you need to do right. Muscles, because endurance training only builds that particular Not enough for.”

Many gay men suffer from pathological dissatisfaction with their bodies. This poor self-image “is the result of a society that treats us as inferior,” Connor says.

While Tom of Finland undoubtedly provided a great, liberating role model for his community, do his drawings reflect a toxic pursuit of aesthetic ideals?

When discussing this issue it is necessary to understand the context of the creation of the artworks: “It is important to interpret Tom in a complex way and to be aware of the limitations within his art,” says Joao Laia, chief curator of the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki. , Finland, which is currently overseeing the largest retrospective of Tom’s art to date.

“The revolutionary potential behind the creation of this art must also be recognized,” he adds.

Tom’s goal was to create a contrast to the classic stereotype of the feminine gay man. “His pictures encouraged gays who realized that there was another way to represent them,” Laya points out.

Above all, his later works are rich in positive messages about the body: “In the 1980s and 1990s, the HIV epidemic made many people so thin and frail that depictions of healthy and muscular men had a powerful effect.” Tom artistically rejected the stigma of being gay with AIDS, Laya argues.

Tom of Finland: Still a role model

Laya is convinced that queer communities still draw strength from iconic works to this day: “With the resurgence of conservative attitudes and narratives, it is important to highlight how Tom has supported the search for freedom, fun and vitality from outside normal identities.”

Sociologist Connor, who takes a critical stance on the propaganda surrounding the presentation of hard-bodied gay men, also recognizes the value of Tom’s works. Especially in the current context, he says, with US states passing laws limiting the rights of LGBTQ people, “I feel it’s very different. Finnish pictures are very sexy and popular. They show that it’s okay to express your desire, your feelings.”

Villani, Connor and Laya agree that Tom’s works, which evolved over his nearly 60-year career, were powerful creations in response to a very specific social zeitgeist, from the gay liberation movement to the AIDS epidemic, to resistance to new anti-LGBTQ movements. Tom was a figurehead whose legacy continues to be reinterpreted.

This is also in the spirit of Villani and Tom of Finland Foundation: “My goal with the Art and Culture Festival is to pave the way for a new generation of queer and sensual artists, and in doing so, to create networks in new cities. Communities around the world.”

This article was originally written in German.

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