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.


Beautiful Picture: Mad Men Looks for an Original Ad Guy

Nice piece in the NYTimes about Brian Sanders, a 75-year-old commercial illustrator, whom the producers of Mad Men (a design mad show) turned to for an authentic 60s and 70s poster. Good choice, as he’s somebody who did them in the 60s and 70s and, although he doesn’t work in that style today, had no problem picking it up again.

From the article:

“What it did was take me right back, about 50 years,” said Mr. Sanders, who added that he was familiar enough with “Mad Men” to be in a bit of disbelief when the show came calling for his drawing board and brushes. The impressionistic image he created uses a scumbled acrylic technique that in its jazzy, textured effects instantly conjures 1960s illustration.
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“It’s a style we refer to over here in England as bubble and streak,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Essex [England]. “I don’t work in that manner now, and I was surprised how quickly it came back, the ability to use it in that particular way.”

There’s a blog with examples of Sander’s work. Also a flickr stream. Amazing to me how quickly these examples take me back to a certain time and place. I mostly associate the saturated colors and “everything at an angle” style with paperback book covers though, not with ads.

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Ben Shahn illustration

The blog mentions Ben Shahn as an influence on the styles of that era, which is clear. One thing I love about graphic arts of that era is that people weren’t afraid of color, witness those wonderful Brian Wildsmith kids’ books.

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