Tom of Finland: Exposed!
Talking with Biographer F. Valentine Hooven III
By Owen Keehnen

(This piece appeared originally in 'Out' in Albuquerque (10/93)

Touko Laaksonen is better known to thousands of gay men as Tom of Finland. His explicit drawings have helped shape gay erotic sensibility and fantasy and provided enjoyment for generations of gay men. Though the artistic merit of his work has been challenged and debated for years, his popularity has endured and continues to endure despite his death in late 1991.

In August, St. Martin's Press published Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, a biography of the controversial artist by F. Valentine Hooven III. Recently I talked with Mr. Hooven about the book, the lasting popularity of Tom’s work, and his ongoing work with the Tom of Finland Foundation.

One of the things Tom of Finland did was to inject humor and guilt-free characters into gay art.

Yes. It was a conscious thing on his part. He was deliberately making his figures happy and positive. In fact, when he died I went through the drawings we have at The Tom of Finland Foundation trying to find a figure appropriate for a memorial service, something sad or melancholy…and I couldn't find one.

Why were the uniforms so important to his art?

During WWII in Finland he didn't see an able bodied man for five and a half years who was not in uniform. But his interest goes before that as well, as a schoolboy he was turned on by the uniforms of the bus drivers.

You speak in the book of Tom drawing in a state of arousal. Was art a sexual outlet for him?

He definitely had a very healthy sex life. He was not substituting drawing for sex. I think it was just another way for him to have sex, almost like extended foreplay.

You refer to Tom's 'Happy Logger' drawing on the cover of the spring 1957 issue of 'Physique Pictorial' as a super-event in gay culture. Would you elaborate?

I remember seeing that drawing and WHAM, it hit me right between the eyes. I'll never forget seeing it on the newsstand. And, I have talked to other people who experienced the same thing. It was something new.

But such artists as Etienne and George Quaintance were also active at the time, what set Tom apart?

It is that sense of pride and almost open gayness. Etienne comes closer than anyone else. In Quaintance, for example, in most of his work except at the very end, was a guy who just happened to have his clothes off but still seemed straight…that was the feeling. Tom hints at overt sexuality and I think it's because of his storytelling ability. He is not just drawing a sexy man; he is presenting a sexy vignette.

As an erotic artist yourself, how is that accomplished with his drawings of single figures?

Partly facial expressions and partly gesture. The poses are perfect in the detailing. It's so much more than just a drawing of a naked guy.

What effect did Paul Cadmus, Tom's idol, have upon his work?

A peculiarly American sensuality that Cadmus did very well. I corresponded with Paul Cadmus because I wanted to use of his drawings for the book but he would not agree. As far as he was concerned Tom's stuff was smut and his was art.

The cultural impact of Tom of Finland is incredible. Men are still emulating his types -- the biker, the lumberjack, the sailor, the cowboy, etc. Did Tom type cultural identity or did he reflect it?

Both. I think it went back and forth one reinforcing the other. He took stereotypes that were already there and defined them. He always said he never really saw men that were Tom men until he came to America in 1979 when he was in his fifties. Man men were creating themselves based on his images.

How did he respond to criticism for his presentation of manhood as exaggerated masculinity and that it perpetuated unattainable ideals?

I don't think he came into much contact with that. He didn't read widely so he never saw it unless someone showed it to him. I did bring up some of the criticism that they all looked alike. He didn't want to hear it and he made a face.

You mention in the book that Tom created upwards of 3000 works.

That was an estimate, it's easily double that.

How many are currently owned by the Tom of Finland Foundation?

The Foundation only has 300 and something. We also have about 1000 rough sketches. We have over 100 of Etienne's and a couple dozen of Rex's.

I had no idea The Foundation dealt with other artists as well.

Yes. We're the only group dealing with this really erotic artwork. It was either expand or watch the work get dumped in the streets.

How effective has The Foundation been in its three-part goal of preservation, restoration, and presentation?

It's getting there. Exhibits are coming up in New York and Berlin. The work is starting to get some real acceptance. We may even have a building in a year or two.

How is Tom of Finland viewed by mainstream art critics?

They're coming around. Attitudes are shifting about pornography.

Does The Foundation own the rights to his work and could you give me a ballpark figure when it comes to total value?

All that was willed to The Foundation by Tom. The drawings range from $2 to $15,000.

That's quite a range. In the book you mention director Franco Zeffirelli commissioned Tom to do a version of Michelangelo's 'David'. Did Tom have any other famous clients?

Andy Warhol owned a couple, Robert Mapplethorpe owned six or eight, Halston also had a couple as well.

How do you explain the enduring popularity of Tom's drawings?

The book I'm working on now is called Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of the Fifties. The introduction is basically what makes a man sexy. It's something cross-cultural whether it's Egyptian, Phoenician, Etruscan, and Shaka Zulu and all the way down to today. Repeatedly we use the same distortions of a real person in portraying ideal men-- broad shoulders, small head, narrow hips, and a whole group of details. Tom captured all that extremely well.

And what does his art mean to you?

The open and sunny sexuality, guilt-free, proud without all the excess baggage and subliminal messages.

What were your impressions of him as a person?

He was a sunny personality as well. He fit his own image of a happy man having happy sex with happy men.

In the eighties Tom's drawings became more reality based and less idealized. Did AIDS and age ground him more in reality or was it something else?

I think both had something to do with it. He was very conscious of AIDS and towards the end would not portray unsafe sex. But I also think his realism showed his growth as an artist. He could do fantasy in terms of reality, a photo-realistic fantasy.

Has gay male photography replaced erotic male art?

No, because you can't really photograph fantasy, but you can draw it. There's an aspect that just can’t be photographed.

What legacy did Tom leave behind when he died of a stroke on November 7, 1991?

Besides his art I think The Foundation is going to be very important. Sex is essential and yet when it comes to art we pretend sex isn’t there except at very safe levels. That's changing. The Foundation is getting involved more and more in this aspect because no one else is doing it. We're trying to get Madonna as a patroness. She seems like someone who would be proud to have her name on a Museum of Erotic Art. We're also having the first Tom of Finland art contest to find the next Tom and to encourage new artists. One of the curators of The Whitney has asked to be a judge. That shows a new attitude and we're very pleased. And I know Tom would be too.