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Monday 13 October 2014

A-Z of Fetish Artists - Tom of Finland - 6

Part 6 Black and White 
This article is about race and I have tried to pick my words carefully, but I'd be glad to hear from anyone who thinks I've chosen badly and will try to put it straight.

 Tom - Biker Trio, 1973 
In part 4, I commented on the unexpected scarcity of black characters in the Kake series. Despite all those adventures and orgies, there are just 2 blacks in the 26 stories, around 3% of the characters. It's unexpected because Tom is noted for the inclusion of black and white men together in his pictures and that's by no means a common occurrence in erotic art. Most of the artists featured in my A-Z series are exclusively white, while the black artist Belasco, for example is exclusively black. This is not entirely surprising, most artists tend to draw what they are familiar with, but on my calculations around 10% of Tom's commonly available pictures feature non-whites. This is a most compelling counter-argument to criticism of his fascist uniform imagery.
Much to my astonishment, Hooven's 'Life and Times of Tom' which I have drawn on heavily for biographical information does not mention blacks at all or show an image containing one. All the more surprising since in the picture above from 1973 (for example) the black character is the most carefully drawn of the three and there cannot be any doubt that Tom found him beautiful, although conspiracy theorists might point to the way the other bikers seem to ignore him!

Tom did not date his early pictures but the first appearance of a black man is thought to be the beach image below, believed to be from 1961. The total whiteness of pre-1961 Tom is not entirely surprising since Tom's homeland, Finland and the adjacent countries he visited were predominantly white. Durk Dehner says mixed race drawings were not publishable in the US prior to this which I don't doubt, but I'm not sure that 1961 marked any watershed in that respect – the 1973 picture above for example seems to suffer from similar inhibitions. Durk's observation doesn't really take account either of Tom's European outlets or his private collection, which could have contained anything he wanted, but nothing has surfaced from there either, although we know that some of his 50's output got lost or stolen. 
 Tom - On The Beach (1961)
The star of the 1961 picture is unquestionably the sailor who is a fine representative of Tom's early 'glamour' style and irresistible to all who see him. That includes the black man who has been reading a girly magazine and is seated as though he is part of a separate, unseen group. This suggestion of 'segregation' is unintentionally political, but the character's outsider status bolsters his 'black and straight' virility credentials, presenting him as 'hard to get'. Tom may also simply be including this character to conjure up a 'typical' American setting, but we know enough about him to realise he would be fully aware of the frisson added by bridging the divides of race and sexuality.
(Incidentally this distinctive beach setting with it's secluded canyons between dunes must surely be based on a real gay meeting place Tom had visited.)
Tom's portrayal of a black face here is sympathetic, he doesn't resort to caricature, but it's boyish rather than manly and the contrast with the racial authenticity of the 1974 picture is considerable. If Tom was seeking to invoke the reputed sexual 'prowess' of non-white races here, this rather safe rendering doesn't shout it out.
There's a companion picture in which this character joins in the orgy just like everyone else, but it's in a supporting, sucking role and it's only his skin colour that distinguishes him from the others. I suspect there may have been more pictures in the series involving a more penetrative role which perhaps were too challenging for the mixed race taboo. However, Tom soon crosses that bridge....

Tom - Wary Captive (1962)
This 1962 image is more interesting to fetish fans, it's the first of a pair where a young black man is tied between posts by two calculating biker types. There's a suggestive power play going on here but since the tied up black character is once again shown as boyish, with a fearful, innocent expression, he earns our total sympathy, but it suggests this is more than an initiation scene. There's not much doubt that Tom is playing the 'black = big' card here but to modern eyes the baby-faced victim is also drawing uncomfortably on stereotypes of 'acceptable' blackness. 
Tom - Centrepiece (1962)
This related picture suggests more maturity in the victim giving added punch to the penetrative inter-racial sex, which even in Europe at this time would have been frowned upon, but it was also commonly seen as racy and exciting. The extra characters in this scene with their distinctive outfits and Sam Browne belts link to another image of the time known as the 'Dare Devils' - a circus style act. Their presence suggests there is a wider story here. The punishment paddle raises the possibility that this is another of Tom's 'theft' scenarios, which would potentially lead us even deeper into the minefield of negative stereotyping.

Tom - Jack and The Explorer (ca 1965)
Tom adds more fuel to this particular fire with his 'Jack in the Jungle' series (ca 1965) in which a white Tarzan-like figure repeatedly battles to extricate himself and other white men from the clutches of local tribesmen who are not only cast in role of childlike savages - uneducated, uncivilised, sheep (as was the pulp fiction custom of the time) but susceptible to bribery by sexual favours rather than the customary currency of cheap jewellery. But at least they are seen as desirable and come out in a better light than the woman in this story. 

To be fair, Tom here is simply copying the popular Tarzan films and books of his time. 'Jack in the Jungle' was probably a commercially motivated experiment and although it has some sexy moments it lacks the gritty relevance of Tom's usual output and is an artistic dead end. There's an unexpected (but isolated) recurrence of this weakness for pulp fiction stereotypes later on, in his portrayal of a North American Indian in Kake 23 (1982!). 
The na├»vely drawn faces in Tom's early 'black' pictures suggest a lack of close study of the subject, so the pre-1961 absence of black characters may simply reflect lack of personal interest. We'll never know what happened to spark it off – whether it was a personal experience, maybe connected with passing 40 and reviewing his life, or perhaps a reflection of the unrest and worldwide debate leading up to the passing of the US Civil Rights Act in 1964. 
Tom - Locker Room Lads (1965)
Jack aside, Tom's exploration of black characters at this time seems to have more to do with desire, exploration and crossing the divide than any negative attitudes. This idea seems to find explicit expression in the last of the 'boyish' pictures in 1965. This innocent-looking young black guy is the object of unsought, unbridled lust and he's clearly responding strongly, if confusedly. The seated stance of his 'attacker' is non-threatening and he's half turned towards us, allowing us to observe. It's as though we are all reaching out with him, to bring in the catch and enjoy him. The ambitious perspective is a bit awry, but for my money this is one of Tom's cleverest and sexiest pictures. Notice that in this picture, the 'big cock' stereotyping of black men is not only irrelevant, Tom seems to mischievously reverse it!

Tom - A Birching (1960's)
There's another relevant event in 1964, when American boxer Cassius Clay (later Mohammed Ali) won the world heavyweight boxing championship. Tom was not really interested in sport, his sporting images are rarer than hen's teeth, but his early pictures often show boys scrapping and Clay's arrogant, articulate confidence and undeniable ability was not easily ignored by anyone. His championing of equality and committed opposition to the Vietnam war both charmed and shocked 'white society' and changed perceptions of black people. Tom was impressed enough to do a drawing (not good enough to include here) which appears to show Clay getting shafted in the ring by a white and enjoying it. It's as if Tom is saying he's 'one of us' – at least we wish he was. 
Clay's appearance and belligerent personality seems to seep into Tom's pictures after this and I like to think the image above might be a product of that process. The date is unknown but stylistically it seems to fit the mid-60's. Not only do blacks outnumber the white man in this picture, they are solemnly subjecting him to a fiercely painful birching, which is arousing for them if not for him. The complete reversal of the usual power relationships is intensely erotic of course. 
Tom - Pleasure (1964) 
This picture, from 1964 perhaps shows Tom's true intentions more clearly. You may not have appreciated the racial element in this image before, but it shows a white boy positively melting under the touch of a black man, with a suggestion of deeper intimacy going on. It looks like this picture was meant for publication, Tom's well-honed skill in 'hidden eroticism' is put to new use undermining the mixed race taboo - and arguably undermining his claims to be non-political too.
This black man (no longer a cuddly boy) seems to be a representative of his race rather than a individual with a personality, but his firm grip and dignified manly stance is entirely positive and a beautiful foil for the exuberant, joyous pleasure of his partner.
This is an powerful expression of illicit desire fulfilled.
The fluidity of the foreground pose here is unusual for Tom suggesting strong emotions and enthusiasm at work. There's a certain kinship to the style of the locker room picture too. But if this picture marks the transition in Tom's blacks from boys to men, it also seems to symbolise or foreshadow a more fundamental change from the youthful, exuberance of the early works (represented by the blond) to the more measured, earthy, adult sexuality represented by the partly hidden black man.
The advent of this picture is part of a wider change and not just racially. Up to this time, in the UK at least, there was a feeling that sex between boys was part of growing up and more acceptable than sex between adult men. Racial differentiation is also less pronounced at this age, and these two factors may partly explain the persistence of boyish imagery in Tom's early black pictures. A way of making them less provocative. But as the 60's progressed, attitudes like this were beginning to dramatically reverse.

Tom - Sixty Nine
This image seems to perfectly encapsulate the direction of change. These two men are both indisputably adult and as sixty-nine's go this is exceptionally intimate, passionate and downright dirty! It's attributed to the year 1963 in the Tom Retrospective Vol 3, which would make it earlier than image 7 above.

I'm not totally convinced about the year, the subject and style seem rather more advanced than this. The inscription on the picture places it later in the sixties but is ambiguous and not necessarily contemporary. Regardless of this, to depict a mixed race encounter in this way at this time would have been considered deeply shocking and offensive by many, not least because of the role given to the white man. This may be why the racial identity of the nearer figure is disguised/ ambiguous and pretty much invisible to the casual observer. Recognise that Tom is not campaigning here, but he is deliberately (and successfully) defying moral outrage as an erotic lever.

Interestingly, there is also an orgy picture from 1963 in which a solitary black man is included but he's equally well disguised (ref:- Tom Retro Vol 1 p36). This might raise the suspicion that Tom sees black men as just another stereotype, but although Tom did a number of other pictures of orgies and 'parades' of favourite stereotypes, the sailor, the construction worker etc.. you won't find a black man amongst them until the 80's.

I reckon Tom produced a quarter of his 'black' pictures in a burst of interest between 1961 and 1966 and it's followed by a quieter period up to the 70's when the rather more sophisticated image which tops this article appeared marking a new phase which I will discuss next time.

To be continued in Part 7
Links to previous articles: Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3 , Part 4, Part 5

For other artists in the A-Z series click on the label below or search by name.

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