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Loving Portraits: Tom of Finland
By Mark Swartz

tomofifn3.jpg - 19.69 K Tom of Finland used to strip naked before drawing, and as he drew he played with himself.

Today he's celebrated not for ambidexterity but for contributing to a particular ideal of male beauty: there's a direct line from the pictures Tom started publishing in American muscle magazines back in the 1940s to the Village People in the 1970s and Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s.

In the wake of Tom of Finland, writes Valentine Hoven III in his introduction to a collection of Tom pictures published by Taschen in 1992, "Gays were much more likely to be hard-bodied sun-lovers in boots and leather, masculinity personified."

Tom -- who was born Touko Laaksonen in 1920, on the south coast of Finland -- had a fantasy life both single-minded and boundless. And after nearly 40 years of making homoerotic drawings for magazines, his talent for indulging in these fantasies began to win him recognition beyond the readership of those publications.

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The first successful public exhibit of his drawings was held in 1978, and from that time until his death in 1991 he enjoyed considerable fame, mostly within the gay community.

He posed for Mapplethorpe, and the resulting photograph--which not surprisingly shows a man who looks nothing like the superidealized characters in his drawings. Fortunately, however, Tom looks like someone who enjoyed a good joke.

tomoffin2.jpg - 12.80 K The pictures exhibited all come from the archive of the Tom of Finland Foundation, a group dedicated to erotic art.

Although the show covers five decades, it doesn't reveal a lot of development; once Tom found his style, he stuck with it.

I'll probably never fully appreciate these pictures since they don't turn me on, but once I got over my initial embarrassment at the raunchier stuff, I developed a liking for their outrageous humor.

In one, two guys stop doing it because they're both more interested in watching three other guys doing it, and in another a guy in a park discovers that the woman he's groping is in fact another guy.

Because these pictures were drawn first to get the artist off and second to get off the magazine readers of another era, it's natural to ask what appeal they might hold for people today.

tomoffin1.jpg - 15.64 K I doubt they get anybody off anymore. Maybe this was hot stuff a few decades ago, but it's unlikely to register on the same thermometer as the glossy magazines, cheap videos and virtual-reality sex simulators available today. But if the pictures no longer do what they were intended to, neither have they settled into a comfortable aesthetic niche.

If you look at them with a purely aesthetic eye, they're miserable. As representations of the male figure, they lack any sense of psychological depth or understanding of anatomy.

Rather than sensuality or sexuality, they offer nothing more than a flippant acknowledgment of all the most obvious ways that two or more male bodies can interlock.

But if you look at them with a purely aesthetic eye, you're missing the point. Tom of Finland made catalysts of sexual awaking. These pictures are relics of bygone erections, anthropological evidence of gay life -- a life that's changed so rapidly in the past few decades that evident from the recent past seems as distant as a Pompeiian fresco.
Courtesy of Mark Swartz and
Photos: Tom of Findland Foundation

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