Tom of Finland is Celebrated During his Centenary; but Foundation May Close Due to COVID

Tuesday August 4, 2020

A close-up of a Tom of Finland stamp, released by the Finnish government in 2014 the Finnish government in
A close-up of a Tom of Finland stamp, released by the Finnish government in 2014 the Finnish government in   (Source:Itella Posti)

"Any time a stylist puts a young pop star in a leather biker cap for a magazine shoot, the impact of Tom of Finland is not far-off,"
writes John Chiaverina in a recent New York Times piece about the late artist and his influence on LGBTQ artists.

Had he lived Tom of Finland, whose real name was Touko Valio Laaksonen, would have celebrated his hundredth birthday on May 8. To celebrate the centenary of his birth, "Exhibitions, both virtual and in reopened spaces, have been staged or planned in locales as far-flung as Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin and Tallinn, Estonia, the New York Times continues. "These commemorative shows are part of a larger, slower shift over the past few decades, one that has seen the artist's leather-clad figurative work recast more firmly into an institutionally approved art cannon."

Tom of Finland was always something of an outlaw artist. His work, with men in leather or military uniforms in exaggerated and highly sexualized poses, is prurient, but also has a sweet, almost innocent quality, celebrating a confident, almost utopian ideal of gay male sensuality. In reality, Laaksonen personal journey is more indicative of the closeted culture of the time. As a young man he fought in World War II (which is where his fetish for military uniforms likely began) before becoming a commercial artist who worked on his "authentic" art in his free time. In 1956 he had his first work was published anonymously in the beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial. The magazine's publisher Bob Mizer gave Laaksonen his iconic name.

He made his first trip to Los Angeles in 1978 where he established the Tom of Finland Foundation, which he founded with his friend Durk Dehner to preserve his vast body of work. "Several years later the scope was widened to offer a safe haven for all erotic art in response to rampant discrimination against art that portrayed sexual behavior or generated a sexual response," its mission statement reads. "Today ToFF continues in its efforts of educating the public as to the cultural merits of erotic art and in promoting healthier, more tolerant attitudes about sexuality."

Touko Valio Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland  

It has taken decades for Laakonen to be taken seriously as an artist, but today the New York's Museum of Modern Art, LA's The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and San Francisco's San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have his work in their collection. In 2017 an authorized biopic (directed by Dome Karukoski) was released; and in in 2014 the Finnish postal service, Itella Posti, published a set of three first class stamps featuring his drawings.

But as artists (such as the ones in the New York Times piece) praise Laakonen's work and his cultural influences, the Foundation has hit hard times, the French magazine TÊTU reports. Writes the magazine (translated by Google): "This house, founded during the artist's lifetime by her lover and partner Durk Dehner, is not only a place of preservation of the work of the Finnish designer known for his drawings of bikers or cowboys with turgid nipples and disproportionate sexes. But it is also a place of exhibition and residence for current artists. Unfortunately, today there is a lack of funds to support the establishment."

Los Angeles Magazine lists the Foundation as one of L.A.'s Most Beloved Institutions threatened by extinction. In a commentary by Dehner, he says that the Foundation a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to preserve and promote the erotic arts.

"Tom's work is really the main vehicle," he writes. "Tom of Finland, the artist, has definitely contributed to the whole acceptance that gay love is good. He moved to California in 1980, and we became partners. He's been gone for 29 years, but he has stayed vibrant and very much alive in my heart and in the hearts of fans all over the world. The Tom House is a very magical place."

And, he adds, "it's all shut down. We have a huge permanent art collection of several thousand artists, we do a yearly art fair, and we have an artist-in-residence program. Because of restrictions, we can't have our volunteers here cataloging material. We can't provide tours because people live here, and we're trying to protect their health.

"We're used to having to tighten our cinches, but we're going to have to start laying people off and reducing our programming and go down to a more spartan level."

Perhaps John Waters expressed Laakonen's legacy best, writing in the Times: "Peter Berlin, Kenneth Anger, Joe Dallesandro, Jeff Stryker, Jim Morrison, James Bidgood, John Rechy, even Elvis and James Dean. None of them could have existed without Tom Of Finland's art coming first. He took the word 'butch' and turned it into a lifestyle. No, a reason to live."

Visit the Tom of Finland Foundation to find out more about their work.

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