Art Wednesday: The Leyendecker Tom of Finland Connection

Okay, so this is more like illustration Wednesday, not art, but found by accident a bunch of illustrations from J.C. Leyendecker, a commercial artist,  notable for hundreds of Saturday Evening Post covers and illustrations, among much other work. The Post, which still exists, dates from the golden age of American magazines, serving as an aspirational guide to WASP middle-class life, often delivered through illustrations (and stories) that idealized one (homogenized) strand of the American story.

Norman Rockwell is perhaps the most famous name associated with this publication (and this style of Americana), and it is at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA where I first encountered Leyendecker, in an exhibit on great magazine illustrators of the first half of the century. From an American Studies perspective (something my gain is always on high for) these images of an imaginary America are fascinating, being as they are an elegant representation of propaganda for the ‘good life’ at the time that muckrakers were uncovering anything but good lives for many working people, and modern artistic trends were bucking traditional narratives, representational techniques, and embracing photography and film.

But what also caught my eye in the show (now some 20 years ago) was  homoerotic ‘dog-whistles’ that basically shout from the images: wholesome American 20th century masculinity that was gay-gay-gay if you were paying the least bit of attention. (More on that and a biosketch here.)

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Who knows how the artist really conceived this (and even the evidence for his own gayness is circumstantial–letters and papers burned by his longtime companion, after his death), but there is something so evocative about an immigrant, & most likely gay artist, illuminating American manliness in the same way that Broadway musicals of the era (also creations of immigrant others, such as the Russian-born Jew Irving Berlin).

That Leyendecker was creating shadow gay identity in his broad shouldered oarsmen and dapper shirt models seems at least plausible (although he also did many other subjects including iconic Santa Claus images and the ‘baby new year’.)


There is nothing in the shadows about the homoeroticism of Tom of Finland, real name, Touko Valio Laaksonen, born 1920, when Leyendecker was in his 40s). His men aren’t contemplating a game of golf or reading Proust, they are getting their ashes hauled. Some PG rated images below–they get much more explicit fast

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These images were the opposite of Leyendecker’s. For me at least, they felt like a secret and transgressive gay samizdat (particularly, if you were a young gay man growing up in a conservative southern town as I was).  It’s interesting that they are a fiction too; fantasizing a gay life–hypermasculine and um–endowed beyond belief– in the same way that Leyendecker imbues WASP manliness with a sort aloof nobility. Tom’s men are a little bit sly about their total carnality, and Leyendecker’s men are a little bit carnal about their elegant slyness. Somehow you can easily imagine Leyendecker’s Arrow Shirt man winking at Tom’s leather daddy.

Now, of course, Tom of Finland is practically mainstream, with a Finnish postage stamp commemorative among much else, and Leyendecker, remembered, if at all, for his stylish art, not the America in his mind’s eye. Both an interesting bit of evidence in the ongoing conversation about masculinity, and gay identity, particularly in the American imagination.

 

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