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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Tom of Finland’

Author F. Valentine Hooven III’s new book recounts the life of a closeted European artist.

© 2020, Cernunnos, a division of Abrams
$50.00 / $63.00 Canada, 295 pages

Born in the spring of 1920 in Kaarina, Finland, young Touko Laaksonen was raised in a community of lumberjacks and farmers. He was fascinated by those “well-muscled laborers,” but he didn’t quite know why until he was an adolescent. 

By the time Touko understood that he was gay, he’d become talented at sketching the laborers he saw, although he had to hide his work because he depicted those men naked for his own enjoyment and sexual relief. He hid who he was, too: as a young man, he had a girlfriend, worked in the male-dominated world of advertising, and even served in the Finnish army during World War II, where his sketches of his uniformed “buddies” became gifts for their wives and girlfriends.

Indeed, Touko couldn’t resist a man in uniform, and they were prominently featured in what he called “my dirty drawings.” Those drawings included uniformed Nazi officers—artwork which got Touko into trouble. (Had he gotten caught having exceedingly risky anonymous sex with men during the war, it could have been far worse.)

Although he had a lover after the war, art was again more of a release than any other physical act. This desire for erotica grew his portfolio throughout the 1950s, and he carefully shared it with “anyone who he thought would appreciate it,” including the publisher of a new kind of international magazine who immediately accepted it for publication. 

A year later, that magazine’s cover featured “a new, exciting, never-before-published artist” who now called himself Tom of Finland.

Yes, biographer F. Valentine Hooven III has filled Tom of Finland with reproductions of Tom’s artwork from the 1940s through 1991, when he died. Nearly every bit of it is explicit in nature, drawn in typical over-the-top Tom of Finland style. But readers will find Hooven’s narrative to be just as interesting. He explains quite often in this biography (which was finished just before Tom’s death but never before published) that the mere creation of this art could have gotten Tom jailed or killed. This gives modern readers a sense for the amount of secrecy gay men had to endure in the days before Stonewall. 

Hooven’s voice can be annoyingly sunny at times, but the courageous turn this story takes is irresistibly appealing. So savor this book both for the artwork and for a story that will fascinate you. 

Tom of Finland by F. Valentine Hooven III is now available on Amazon.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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