Tom of Finland, Masculinity and Homosexuality
Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity and Homosexuality by Micha Ramakers; St. Martin's Press; 270 pages; $27.95.
Tom of Finland--Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991)--is the greatest gay erotic artist of all time (except for the guy who did the murals at Pompeii) and the most famous Finn since the composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).
From the 1950s until his death, Tom defined and celebrated gay masculinity in Europe and North America: "He provided immeasurable pleasure to several generations of gay men and, furthermore, offered what had seemed unattainable for many of them: tools for an affirmative identity."
Men from San Francisco to Stockholm wanted to be-- and to have-- "Tom's Men"; and to a great degree succeeded. When Tom first visited the United States (1978), he came as a conquering hero; and our community's most desirable clones and leathermen strived to do him honor.
The life of Tom of Finland has been told before, in F. Valentine Hooven's book Tom of Finland: His Life and Times and in the documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy. Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality is the first book-length, academic study of Tom's art and its impact on gay subcultures.
"Tom's work offered a sharply contrasting image of homosexuality to the one that was considered - even by most gay men - universally valid", writes author Micha Ramakers. "He invented a (pretty butch) fairy-tale gay universe in which masculinity was held up as the highest ideal."
The development of Tom's art coincided with a period in history when a new generation of men began to identify ourselves as openly-gay, openly-masculine men. Men like "Kake" and "Pekka" - gay superheroes for the masses --became role models for this post-Stonewall generation. When gay reality caught up with Tom's fantasy - as it eventually did in the seventies - the Master just moved his fantasies a bit further, creating a series of more-muscular, better-endowed Men.
Through the years, as censorship declined and tastes changed, Tom's Men gradually developed from fey youths to overly-developed "Überfaggots"; and his art went from faintly suggestive to overly explicit. Nevertheless, "The relation between sexual pleasure and power remained its central theme throughout."
Dirty Pictures studies how sex and power interact in Tom's works, from his SM art to his controversial drawings of men in Nazi uniforms. Though Tom gave us "a hypermasculine vision of the world"'; it would be wrong to see his work as "fascist" art that validates traditional patriarchy. Instead, "Tom subverted traditional connotations of masculinity". In Tom's universe, cops and other authority figures are often shown as the passive objects of sex; and even the most muscular, overly-endowed Man usually meets his match.
In Dirty Pictures Micha Ramakers offers a detailed study of Tom of Finland's "hypermasculine vision of the world"; as it is portrayed in the Master's art. In doing so, Ramakers might be looking too hard: After all, Tom's cops, lumberjacks and sailors only exist to sexually arouse the viewer. Created to serve as masturbatory fantasies, Tom's drawings and paintings also depict a world that many gay men yearn for.
As a long-time fan of Tom of Finland, I found Dirty Pictures to be long overdue. For most of his life, art critics dismissed Tom as a "pornographer"; and his work was hardly known outside the gay ghettoes of the Free World. Happily, this is no longer true. Major museums and art galleries now display Tom's art, and Touko Laaksonen is a revered cultural figure in his native Finland. Dirty Pictures is only the latest step in the legitimation of this great artist.