TOKYO — In Japan, the kimono’s obi, or belt, and underlying ties are cinched tight, the better to maintain the elegance of the garment as the body loses itself in its expanses of fine fabric and sculpted form.
Elsewhere, in a world of Eros and good-natured lust, the hunky musclemen who turn up in Tom of Finland’s art wear their gear super-tight, too: thigh-hugging jeans; rugged lumberjack shirts; sleek sailor, soldier, or policemen’s uniforms; the occasional, well-tailored suit; and leather, leather everywhere — jackets, trousers, chaps, harnesses, jockstraps — the better to reveal everything about their endowments, which are generous, ripe, and always ready for action.
Now, in an intriguing cross-cultural encounter that provides some welcome relief from coronavirus angst, along with a last blast of heat — of a different kind — as summer fades, Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland has opened at Gallery X at Shibuya Parco, one of Tokyo’s most cutting-edge department stores. It will remain on view through October 5.
In many ways, it is an audacious serving of unabashedly homoerotic imagery in a modern, developed country in which, despite a rich history of avant-garde experimentation throughout the arts as well as many pioneering advances in science and technology, “the love that dare not speak its name” is still quietly tolerated — but rarely discussed. Japan is an artistically innovative but socially conservative place.
Nevertheless, the organizers of this latest Tom of Finland exhibition, one of several events taking place internationally this year to commemorate the centennial of the artist’s birth — including the publication this month of Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero, by F. Valentine Hooven III (Cernunnos, 2020) — are hoping that it might help stimulate discussion about the lives and rights of gay and other marginalized people in Japan.
In fact, newspaper reports in recent years have cited surveys in which large percentages of respondents have expressed support for same-sex marriage in Japan; to date, two prefectures and more than 50 municipalities have begun offering “partnership certificates” for same-sex couples. While not legally equivalent to conventional marriage certificates, these documents are still useful with regard to housing or hospital-visitation rights.
Shai Ohayon, the director of The Container, a small gallery that is one of the leading new-art venues in the Japanese capital, curated the new Tom of Finland exhibition. He began working on the ambitious project two years ago, later gaining the support of the Embassy of Finland and the related Finnish Institute in Japan, which are both located in Tokyo. Citing his background research for the project, he noted, “Some woodblock prints of the Edo period depicted nanshoku [which can also be pronounced ‘danshoku’], or sex between men in Japan, but later, during the Meiji era, with the advent of sexology and the influence of Western ideas, such activity was discouraged.”
Tom of Finland’s savvy fans know that the artist was born Touko Valio Laaksonen in southwestern Finland in 1921. His parents were schoolteachers, and Touko grew up in a home filled with art, books, and music. He began learning to play the piano as a young child, and as he grew up he became enamored of the looks of the hardy loggers and farm boys in his rural environs.
Around the age of 19, he began studying marketing and advertising but in 1940 he was called up to serve in the Finnish military in an anti-aircraft unit based in Finland’s capital, Helsinki.
During the war, Laaksonen got an eyeful of uniformed sailors, soldiers, and policemen — and during mandatory blackouts, managed to get his hands on some actual specimens, too. After the war, he studied music at Sibelius Academy and worked for an advertising company in Helsinki. In 1956, disguising his real name with the simple signature “Tom,” he sent some of the homoerotic drawings he had been producing in private to Physique Pictorial, an American magazine whose photos of bodybuilders and classically posed, nearly nude models were aimed at gay men (overt gay porn was still illegal in the United States at the time).
That magazine’s editor scooped up the submissions (Laaksonen called them his “dirty drawings”), named his new contributor “Tom of Finland,” and under that moniker, the artist’s career as a pioneering creator of thematically assertive, skillfully rendered, enticingly homoerotic imagery was launched.
“I wanted my drawings […] to show gay men being happy and positive about who they were,” Tom of Finland once remarked about his work, which he began showing in exhibitions in Europe and the US in the 1970s, their visibility and increasing popularity coinciding with the emergence of sexual-liberation movements. (This quote, and some of the artist’s other bon mots, come from the archive of the Los Angeles-based Tom of Finland Foundation and appear as wall texts in the exhibition.)
In Tokyo, 30 of the artist’s drawings in pencil, gouache, or marker are on view, offering a concentrated survey of his art’s development over the span of a decades-long career. (By the time he died in 1991, he had created some 3500 works.) His precise pencil strokes vividly evoke the textures of his subjects’ chest hair or neat haircuts, and his modeling is so deft that the fluffiness of a wool collar, the stiff creases in a pair of jeans, the contours of firm pecs, abs, and butt cheeks, and, notably, the irresistible — for Tom — chiaroscuro of all that leather offer a sense of realism that belies his art’s cartoonish exaggeration and fantasy air.
“A naked man is, of course, beautiful,” Tom once quipped, adding, “but dress him in black leather or a uniform — […] then he is sexy!”
Here, a preppy boy meets up with two sailors in white uniforms, their bulbous buttocks ready to pop out of their bell-bottomed trousers; there, two hunks in matching cruisewear — boots, tight jeans, leather jackets and caps — examine a “Who Will Be Mr. Universe?” poster; elsewhere, a tailor checks a visitor’s inseam, one end of his measuring tape neatly tucked into his beefy client’s crotch. Like many of Tom of Finland’s figures, this big lug’s perfect, V-shaped torso rises out of a tiny waist that the grandes dames who squeezed themselves into Dior’s stomach-crushing “New Look” of the late 1940s would have coveted.
The Tokyo show includes a few images, displayed in a little chamber of their own, that are supposedly more risqué. However, given that Japanese heterosexual porn routinely features women bound, gagged, and suspended from ropes, exactly what qualifies here as too transgressive or “obscene”?
In the naughty-drawings room, visitors will encounter one of Tom of Finland’s most emblematic pieces, a kind of Adoration of the Magi composition in which four lusty lads brimming with Norman Rockwell wholesomeness ogle and dive into a fifth buddy’s burgeoning package (he’s a cop or soldier spilling out of his uniform) like a gang of Future Farmers of America seizing upon the prize-winning giant zucchini at the county fair.
Tom of Finland’s images are all vim, vigor, and gusto; unlike an earlier generation of closeted homosexual artists, like the American Paul Cadmus (1904-1999), whose coded pictures embedded clues for knowing viewers, such as the red neckties that were once gay men’s signals to each other, Finland’s Tom never had anything to hide. There is no shame, guilt, or self-doubt in his robust, exuberant art.
By the time of the artist’s death, the influence of his imagery’s fetishized costumes and stylized masculinity could be felt in contemporary photography, fashion, and movies. By email, Durk Dehner, the president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation, which promotes the artist’s legacy, told me, “It seems that, no matter where Tom’s work is exhibited, there is one message that is communicated — one of freedom of expression and the freedom of having a sex-positive presence” in society and the world. Daisuke Kobayashi, the head of Shibuya Parco’s entertainment division, finds it “fascinating” that by “shining a light on a minority’s culture,” the Finnish artist’s work calls attention to progressive social values.
Tom of Finland once observed that his “dirty drawings” would probably never “hang in the main salons of the Louvre,” but mused that, if only the world could learn to “accept all the different ways of loving,” then he might someday land “a place in one of [its] smaller side rooms.”
For now, in Tokyo, his work has an entire, high-profile venue all to itself — where some visitors might find it hard not to pop a seam, or bust an obi, as they take in a batch of pictures that are just too damned hot.
Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland continues at Gallery X, Shibuya Parco (15-1 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo) through October 5. The exhibition is curated by Shai Ohayon.
An Ode to Tom, a related exhibition featuring the work of Japanese gay artists influenced by Tom of Finland — Goh Mishima, Gengoroh, and Jiraiya — is on view at The Container (Hills Daikanyama Building, 1-8-30 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku) through November 30.
Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero (2020) by F. Valentine Hooven III is published by the Cernunnos imprint of Abrams Books.