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Touko Laaksonen: The Man Behind Tom of Finland

May 24, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 258
A drawing from the Motorcycle series that is on exhibit at Woodman/Shimko Gallery.

A drawing from the Motorcycle series that is on exhibit at Woodman/Shimko Gallery.

by Rebecca M. Alvin

To make art is to address your fears about who you are and how you will be perceived. Even if you create something with no intention of selling it in a gallery, the act of truly putting oneself out, expressing one’s truth, is boldness in the face of vulnerability. You are naked on the page, canvas, photograph, or whatever medium of choice. So to make art that tells your truth in the face of discrimination, outright hostility, and the very real possibility of being arrested and having your life and your family’s lives ruined, is profound in itself. When that art also speaks of freedom and joy with a unique sensibility and great technical skill, as it does in the work of Tom of Finland, it is miraculous.

Long known and collected in underground circles, particularly among gay men, the artist known as Tom of Finland created incredible artwork depicting his homosexual fantasies dating back as far as the late 1930s. But the man himself, Touko Laaksonen, has not been widely studied until fairly recently. At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a new biopic debuted, quickly snapping up distribution before it even hit the screen. Tom of Finland will be screening in this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival next month, but before that, we will have the chance to see his original pencil drawings from two series at Woodman/Shimko Gallery in the gallery’s first exhibition of the season, opening May 26.

In an interview in New York with the film’s director, Dome Karukoski, and the cast of the film, he explains, “We knew the images and the visual life of him, but we didn’t really know the story of Touko Laaksonen.” Actor Pekka Strang, who plays Touko, adds it wasn’t until after he died in 1991 that his real identity was known, when “suddenly people began to know that ‘Tom of Finland’ was actually from Finland and that it wasn’t just a name, it was a real life man. Even his relatives didn’t know about the guy known as Touko Laaksonen being the well known artist Tom of Finland.”

Scene from Tom of Finland. Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures.

Scene from Tom of Finland. Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures.

In the film, we meet an artist who must remain closeted, as even a country as liberal as Finland did not allow open expression of non-heterosexual sexuality. “People have been a bit shocked because the history of gay men in Finland hasn’t been known. I mean we have a quite dark history. People who lived in that time, like heteros, they probably knew it at some point, but they haven’t sort of been confronted with the issue.  So there’s been a bit of a shock about our dark history, and still a people have been really touched and moved by the story,” says Strang.

We see Laaksonen struggling with his World War II experiences when he served in the Finnish army allied with Germany against Russian invaders to Finland. Amid the darkness of the period and his struggles with both his wartime experiences and closeted sexuality,  Laaksonen fantasizes about other men he encounters in the military, fetishizing their uniforms and motorcycles in art work he shares illicitly, passing them along in secrecy until they eventually make their way to U.S. publisher of “beefcake” magazine Physique Pictorial Bob Mizer, who published them here widely.

A drawing from the Motorcycle series that is on exhibit at Woodman/Shimko Gallery.

A drawing from the Motorcycle series that is on exhibit at Woodman/Shimko Gallery.

And yet, there is a remarkable openness and joy to Laaksonen’s drawings.  “[Touko] really didn’t bear any shame,” explains Karukoski. This, he says, made the story different from what is usually seen in films about gay characters. “Usually they have characters who are very conflicted about their own sexuality, but in this story, he was always very sure about his sexuality very early on.”

With their exaggerated male body parts and light-hearted scenarios, despite their inspiration coming from Nazi and Russian soldiers and their somewhat sadomasochistic aesthetic, “there’s a little twist of humor to his work,” says gallerist Woody Shimko. “They’re certainly graphic, but there’s also a certain humor, too. It’s not just this hardcore S&M thing.”

The exhibition at Woodman/Shimko feature two series: the Motorcycle series and the Military series, both owned by Mark Hogendobler, an Austin, Texas, art collector who purchased them from the British man who originally commissioned these works directly from Laaksonen for 25 pounds a month. These are not prints; they are original pencil drawings, and both series are rarely shown. In fact, the Military series, which was created in 1970 has never before been exhibited.

“Each series tells a complete story,” Shimko says. “They’re not just collections of drawings.” The story told in the Motorcycle series, for example, follows a man getting a ride from a motorcyclist, then riding along, and one of them falling off in the mud as the other looks on laughing. They then frolic and wrestle in the mud, leading to graphically depicted sex, ultimately involving a third party.

Already well known and appreciated, with some works in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tom of Finland, if not quite a household name, is no longer underground. But with the film set to be released in the U.S. this fall by Kino Lorber Films, after having already had one of the biggest openings of any film in Finland, the stage is set for Tom of Finland to become a part of mainstream consciousness. In Finland, his work has even been issued on postage stamps since 2014, something hard to imagine in the U.S. for any erotic artist, much less a gay erotic artist.

When showing the work at his Palm Springs gallery, Shimko says he was surprised to find that in addition to the largely gay male interest in the work, he also found women enjoying the work, even selling one to a straight woman. Perhaps the objectification of male bodies is refreshing in comparison with the cartoonish depictions of female anatomy in the comics of the 1960s and 70s that seem to have been influenced by Tom of Finland. Perhaps there is a humor about masculinity that comes through to women. Whatever the reason, the work does feel lighter than its subject matter and inspirations would suggest.

Official Tom of Finland postage stamp collection released in Finland in 2014

Official Tom of Finland postage stamp collection released in Finland in 2014

The influence of Tom of Finland can be seen not only in the culture of the leather community or in erotic art, but also in advertising and fashion. “People now know who he was, who was the artist behind the brands on coffee, on bed linens, fire extinguishers in Finland, so that’s something to say,” says Strang.

Tom of Finland pencil drawings will be on exhibition at Woodman/Shimko Gallery, 398 Commercial St., Provincetown May 26 – June 8, with an opening reception on Friday, May 26, 6 – 9 p.m. The film Tom of Finland will screen in this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival, which runs June 14 – 18 at various venues in Provincetown and Wellfleet. For information on the exhibition call 508.487.0606 or visit WoodmanShimkoGallery.com. For information on the film festival visit ptownfilmfest.org.