With a cornucopia of pert butts and male appendages of heft, “Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland,” currently on display at Shibuya Parco’s Gallery X in Tokyo, is a celebration of transgression, lust, emotional and physical connection.
The artist Tom of Finland’s real name, Touko Valio Laaksonen (1920-91), may not be well-known in Japan, but the iconography that he helped popularize — leather vests and captain’s caps, handlebar moustaches and biker jackets — has become embedded in the global public consciousness as a defining style of butch gayness both in and out of the LGBTQ community.
The exhibition, which mainly consists of monochrome drawings, comes on the 100th anniversary of Laaksonen’s birth, and the solo show of his homoerotic art is a first for Japan. While not necessarily revolutionary in terms of artistic technique, the Tom of Finland image is recognizable for its expert campiness and treatment of the semi-clothed male body that is somewhere between Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Robert Crumb.
As Laaksonen was invested in a medium outside the realm of high art (most of his published work originally appeared in men’s magazines), Laaksonen’s greatness was first built on fan love, with critical approval from the art world coming later. The exhibition’s several satellite events attest as much to the commitment of the events’ curator, Shai Ohayon, as to the significance of Tom of Finland’s vision for the creation of positive gay culture. The events include screenings of the 2017 biographical film “Tom of Finland” at Parco’s White Cine Quinto cinema; an exhibition titled “An Ode to Tom of Finland,” which features homoerotic work by contemporary Japanese artists, at The Container in Meguro Ward; online talks organized by The Finnish Institute in Japan; and a night of partying with the pop-up Tokyo night club team FancyHIM.
Had COVID-19 not hit Japan this year, Ohayon says there would also have been a birthday party at the Finnish embassy, and it’s notable — inspiring, really — that Laaksonen’s in-your-face subversion of heteronormativity has institutional support at a national level. The opening night of the exhibition was attended by the embassy’s cultural attache, who was gamely wearing a dark pink Tom of Finland T-shirt with chain design and requisite hunks, and the director of The Finnish Institute in Japan, Anna-Maria Wiljanen.
While standing next to three drawings of shirtless men with perfect abs and drolly bulging packages, we discussed the fact that Laaksonen’s work and Finland’s more established mainstream export to Japan, the Moomins, share an innocent joy. Wiljanen reminded me that there was another connection between Tom and Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, in that Jansson’s greatest romantic attachment was in a same-sex relationship.
The air of nonchalant happiness that is a feature of Laaksonen’s men may have been a consequence of having to evade censorship, but it works differently according to how sexually explicit the images are. In an untitled graphite on paper work from “The Tattooed Sailor” series that appeared in a 1961 issue of Athletic Model Guild magazine, a faintly discernible look of pleasure on a tank-top-wearing customer’s face can be seen as his inside leg is measured by a moustachioed tailor. As well as being a reaction to physical pleasure, this gentlest of grins can be seen as a sign of complicity with the viewer that he and the artist have together managed to dodge the law.
In more direct images such as a 1946 untitled gouache, created at a time when Laaksonen was not making pictures with thought of publication, three men with dimpled smiles in military uniform grab each other’s groins and the message is straightforward: Sex is fun. In the historical context of homosexuality being considered an “affliction” in heteronormative society — something that should be considered shameful, disgusting or aberrant — this happiness is subversive and radical.
As Laaksonen put it in a 1988 interview at California Institute of the Arts: “I always thought that I didn’t want to change the way people feel … but finally I found out that I want to influence people … I wanted to influence so-called straight people into seeing gayness in a positive way. To be gay was forbidden; they felt guilty, they felt unhappy, they couldn’t show that they enjoyed sex … I wanted to tell them they had (a) right also, even if it was legal or not, but they had a right to enjoy life in their way.”
Draftsmanship and stylishness aside, it is this representation of desire as a simultaneously personal and social phenomenon that gives Tom of Finland’s work its particular power. The director of the aforementioned “Tom of Finland” biopic, Dome Karukoski, considered Laaksonen’s most salient quality to be shamelessness. This makes showing his work in Japan, a country where shame can be considered central to how people operate socially, particularly provocative. Laaksonen’s work exemplifies queerness, and American Studies writer Nadine Milde described it in a 2001 essay on gayness and postmodernism, as “something to give to, and not only to beg from, contemporary society.”
Along with the smiles there has to be an element of a disturbance to expectations for Tom of Finland’s images to work. One image of a man in military trousers and jackboots being held in a chokehold and sexually assaulted is grim, but it’s understandable as a fantasy reversal of power, in which the oppressor is forced to endure punishment for their intolerance. On balance, though, just as audiences were more amused than offended by the groundbreaking exhibition of shunga (traditional Japanese erotica) at the Eisei Bunko Museum in 2015, there is more that is comedic than controversial in this exhibition.
On the other hand, there is the converse problem of what happens to Tom of Finland’s iconography if it becomes too popular. Writer and activist Arthur Evans, who coined the term “Castro clone” in 1978 to deride the proliferation of the hyper-masculine fetish look in the San Francisco gay community, did not see the mass adoption of this image as a liberation, but rather capitalism preying on gay men’s anxiety of being considered a “fairy.” In the 21st century, is Japan’s first exhibition of Tom of Finland to be a culturally significant moment that unlocks greater introspection on gender roles, or merely presage of an influx of butch fashion and paraphernalia? I’d bet on the latter rather than the former.
Still, I like the idea that curator Ohayon and The Finnish Institute in Japan might have caused Takashi Murata, Japan’s ambassador to Finland, to scramble for his dictionary at some point in 2020. Last year, Murata commemorated 100 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries with the comment that “the Finnish and Japanese have many similar characteristics and share common values represented by three Ps, that are ‘punctuality, patience and prudence.’” Murata may have to enlarge his vocabulary.
“Reality＆Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland” runs through Oct. 5 at Shibuya Parco’s Gallery X in Tokyo. For more information, visit https://art.parco.jp/galleryx.