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Thursday 20 November 2014

A-Z of Fetish Artists - Tom of Finland - 9

I will conclude this extended appreciation of Tom of Finland's work by focussing more explicitly on the evolution of his fetish 'credentials'. The first manifestation of these interests is probably this rather odd picture from the 1950's showing a sailor lashing the bare backside of a boy who is stuck halfway though a hole in a wall. The attacker is using a bunch of twigs like those used in saunas to stimulate the circulation. Saunas are part of everyday life in Finland and this erotic interpretation could surely only be imagined by Scandinavian men. 

This picture with it's wonderful, dangling ivy detail has the retrospective feel of a scholarly, historical illustration – like British pictures from this era of boys being spanked - but Tom soon wades into deeper erotic waters.

This depiction of a biker belting the backside of a wrestling man, like a Roman overseer urging on his trainee Gladiator, is both impressive and powerful. It's surprising to discover this picture is supposed to be as early as 1958 (according to 'The Art of Pleasure'). The explicit, erotic content is unusual for this time and the technique is pretty advanced too – successfully generating movement and excitement. The masculinity of the two wrestlers booms out at you, making the sadistic enthusiasm of the spanker all the more arousing.

It is the presence of this third man which makes the picture so erotic. Structurally, the wrestlers form a self-contained cohesive element of the picture, while the spanker is somewhat separate from them. It's as though the artist has observed two hulking men wrestling, enjoying the impressively proportioned and unprotected rear of one of the fighters and has daydreamed of seeing it spanked, then hurrying home has brought out his sketch pad and brought the fantasy to life by adding in himself. He can lay now the lash on his object of desire with impunity while the man's still caught up in the fight, but the unexpectedly forceful application makes you wonder at his motives. Certainly, this level of intensity does not spring from a disinterested creator.

There was something of a vogue for wrestling as entertainment this time (when stay-at-home television was still a luxury). Every town had regular tournaments between grappling heroes. Perhaps Tom was a fan, enjoying the struggles of the half naked fighters as a proxy for more erotic sport. His pictures from this era frequently show men wrestling on some pretext or other and there's actually a proper depiction of wrestling sport in 1960 (significantly, he highlights the upturned ass of one of the contestants in this picture too).

Tom's depictions of rather violent spankings continue though his life and I've already discussed a number of them - including the cop belting in Kake 5, the spanking of the locker room thief and the hyper masculine mixed race paddling of the 80's

The wrestling influence continues to serve Tom well in the sixties - in the careless biker's forced submission, the underwear clad householder grappling with a burglar and the picture above which is another of my favourites. It looks as if a scantily clad surfer has found his way onto a naval vessel and is being 'forced' by a couple of sailors who no doubt consider his slovenly attire (and the casual, laid-back lifestyle it implies) to be an affront to their military viewpoint of how men should be. The perspective of the ship is awry (or arguably, highly stylised, I suppose) but this remains for me one of Tom's most effective, fantasy-stoking pictures and the young surfer in his ragged shorts is one of his most appealing creations. Beautiful, innocent(?), helpless and fearful in the grip of stronger men, he is forced to confront pungent, disciplined manhood.

In a way, Tom is recounting here a young man's frightening transition from boyish innocence to sexual manhood and the special sense of danger which comes from entering into sexual experience with truly adult men for the first time. No wonder he looks anxious, Tom's sailors are not just the previously seen pretty sex objects they are assertive, aggressive sexual beings. (See also my earlier article on Tom's sailors as predators and sex objects). This lad is also playing out the fantasy of being escorted forcefully across that momentous sexual threshold by men who are experienced and firm, but friendly and trustworthy (as symbolised by their uniforms). Of course Tom plants enough bewilderment on his face to make his acquiescence unclear and enough slyness on the watching sailor's face to make their intentions suspect too.

As in the previous picture this third man contributes a vital level of erotic tension, being poised (and clearly inclined) to exploit the surfer's vulnerable state. This time there's an even stronger sense that he's detached from the action (it's accentuated by his odd positioning) and looking on like a 'voyeur'.

(The obvious technical flaws in this picture have inspired me like a persistent itch with the belief that I could do it better but I never have! See Inspired by Tom.)

There's no overt sexual act in this picture, just some lewd bulges and pointing, but pictures like these lit up the pages of beefcake magazines when they first appeared because they showed men with idealised physiques not just posing, but interacting with each other in a muscular way that is essentially male - with just enough light-heartedness to disarm (if you wish) any suspicions about the nature of the scene.

Tom used humour as a cover for daringly erotic interactions in those less tolerant times (see Tailors and hidden eroticism). But sometimes there is a less funny side - like the young muscle boy cuffed to a lamp-post by a leather man, apparently out of spite (see Petulant Leatherman article). It's interesting how often Tom shows youthful beauty and naivety being berated, controlled or punished in his imagery.

The logical conclusion of the 'forceful seduction' theme is realised explicitly in the Kake series and also notably in Bar Predators (1966) where a construction worker wanders into a biker bar for a drink and becomes the object of unsought intimacy from two rough patrons. This is a forbidden fantasy that many men secretly enjoy but it's poles apart from the 'joyful giving and sharing' tag with which some of Tom''s disciples whitewash his legacy. 

The next notable fetish milestone is the dungeon 'mini-series' of 1966 where a group of uniformed men drag a young biker into a dungeon, strip him and whip him as the prelude to a modest orgy of sucking. This 'victim' physically resembles the careless biker and careless sailor and is clearly the prototype of Kake in appearance, but he seems quite different in character, repeatedly made to be the puppet of more powerful men.

Tom reworks this scene in Kake 14 'The Sadists' with less extravagant uniforms and more exotic 'tortures' but the outcome is the same. Even the new, more audacious Kake is forced into sexual service by the representatives of authority.

Tom was depicting bondage in his pictures as early as 1959 (a naked biker roped to his motorcycle). The men are nearly always tied to something, often spread-eagled for maximum access, as in this dungeon scene. There is also an isolated, casually drawn hog-tie in the 'Cowboy Clothes Thieves', but Tom seems to have had no interest at all in tight body restraint or shibari style bondage.
As for gags, they are nowhere to be seen.

Tom also depicted many other floggings, but they are usually conducted, not by cops or soldiers, but by members of the biking community in woodland settings (see 2 boys whipped). These pictures escape from the preoccupation with authoritarian oppression, invoking the Utopian idea of an organised community of gay men, complete with their own rules and disciplinary procedures. Sometimes the victims even look as if they are enjoying it, but that does take the edge off a bit!

We know nothing of Tom's own explorations of the fetish scene but his interest is reflected by references to sounding in the Kake stories and this picture of a rather jolly fisting scene in 1974. The choice of 3 black men to exclusively administer proceedings is an even more remarkable statement by Tom, which he underlines by showing the receiver looking out at us, in wonderment at his own audacity and good fortune. I have to say, though, that this racial element and the improbable 'back yard' setting does not suggest an intimate acquaintance with the real 'scene'. In fact, while there is plentiful evidence in Tom's drawings that he liked gay fetish bars and leather clothing, there is a distinct lack of anything resembling the claustrophobic atmosphere of a leather club – perhaps he didn't like them. His dungeon episodes are generally placed in police or military contexts.

The crate and wooden fence seen here are regular Tom props. The crates act as podiums (altars if you like) on which the captive or passive participant is 'dealt with'. They are therefore strongly associated with sexual action. The fence in this picture provides privacy but it's also a barrier excluding the outside world (apart from a handy voyeur's chink). You may know other Tom pictures where straight-looking construction workers peer over the fence to observe gay intercourse and sometimes reach over to help out. In his late period, mixed race paddling picture, the fence and crate appear again but here the fence is clearly a barrier to an outsider, who is both mature and gay. Is this the 60 year old Tom himself, peering over it wistfully at the intense sexual proceedings? 

In 1976 Tom produced two contrasting mini series, each of 3 images. This one, depicting the disciplining of a biker by 2 darkly portrayed guards, contains some of his best drawing, from the superbly rendered leather uniforms of the guards to the arched hairy torso of the prisoner as he is forced to service his tormentors. Fisting is also featured here but unlike the previous picture there's precious little fun in evidence, it's portrayed as a punishment, forcing the captive into a humiliating ejaculation.

These are not real policemen of course but fetish guards in some fantasy prison, strutting their clinging, soft leather outfits which are disturbingly reminiscent of real, evil regimes. So too their behaviour, there's a distinctly harder edge to proceedings, possibly because Tom's depictions have become more realistic and earthy. It almost feels like gay men copying oppressive practices rather than reinventing them for their own pleasure. This series is from the same period as the Locker Room Thief and it's pervaded by a similar feeling of aggression or anger.

These are admirable drawings, but for me something of the erotic has been lost, though I can't put my finger on why. Whether it's the brooding, evil atmosphere that spoils the piece for me, the absence of any conventional sex, the lack of any emotional response from the prisoner, or is it a stylistic issue, the slightly contrived, balletic centrepiece in which we are distanced from the action by the aerial viewpoint?

The counterpart to this series features a complete reversal of roles as a real policeman is abused and humiliated by two gloating studs. I believe it's Tom's only portrayal of this rather obvious revenge scenario apart from Kake no 15 - Violent Visitor, circa 1970, but somehow it seems like an empty victory as the cop stoically endures his fate while we watch from afar. These feel like important works, the drawing here is almost as good as the dungeon piece and similar in intensity, it's a mystery to me why it just doesn't seem to work erotically.

Tom's well-known lifeguard picture appeared in the following year and it's a complete contrast – as if he's rid himself of his anger and acquired (at the age of 56) a warm parental attitude to youth rather than what seemed like jealousy and resentment in the works I mentioned earlier.

From the mid-70's onwards Tom did numerous studies of posed couples and individuals, most of them more 'academic' than this picture. Tom's portrait period may have represented a faltering of erotic inspiration after a long career or perhaps an attempt to gain respectability and recognition with some 'straight' art. If it was the latter he chose a most difficult course to this end. Small scale portraiture and pencil technique can pay an artist's bills but rarely attract critical acclaim.

I find Tom's portrait art a little bland with a tendency to flatter the sitter or remould him as a 'Tom's Man' rather than reveal his true character. That's a classic dilemma for the portrait artist but it's the subtle insights and honesty that make for high art in this genre (think of Velasquez's Royal Princess).

Tom rightly realised that his 'dirty pictures' were not art gallery fare, but didn't seem to realise that it was precisely this work where his unique qualities lay – and indeed they remain, even if the vulgarity of sexual ornamentation is laid aside. The humanity, humour and sheer gayness that infuses some of his more restrained, reflective and perceptive works – like the stern lifeguard rescuing a secretly delighted young man from the water – that truly is something special. This picture is probably too sentimental and populist for the arbiters of 'Art' ......


.......but if you compare it with Jack Vettriano's 'Singing Butler' (1992) you can see how close Tom might have been to the recognition he craved. (Admittedly even Vettriano's picture is not regarded as 'proper' art, at least not yet.......)


There's more portraiture in the 'Slave Market' series in 1982, which marks Tom's most overt expression of the 'leather lifestyle', but he adds his own distinctive uniform twist. This image is possibly the least well known of the set but to my mind it's the best. By this time Tom was switching his portrait-style drawings away from neo-Grecian beefcake to focus on the leather fraternity and the Slave Market pictures reflect that. However, most of them depict the master-slave relationship as a form of hero worship towards an impassive, domineering, statuesque hunk. This one shows a little more character in the master, it's the sort of artistic insight I was alluding to above.

This series falls in the middle of the period 1981-83 when HIV/AIDS had emerged but it's cause had not yet been identified, it's the 'Gay Plague' era, a time of unexplained deaths, fear and demonisation of gays (again). It's tempting to connect Tom's portraiture around this time to the decimation of the gay leather community, he was certainly close to it and must have been directly affected. The (unrelated) death of his long term partner in the same year cannot have failed to prompt musings on mortality. Whatever the truth, his stoic chronicling of leather men and their lovers in these years is certainly poignant. But that's a subject for another day. 

Surprisingly, this 1984 picture is in quite a different vein. It's not especially fetishistic, but it is truly memorable erotica, capturing the moment when a biker succumbs to the plundering of two wildly randy cops. 'Cops on biker' is a familiar Tom scenario but for once there's no negative overtones of vindictiveness, no undue force or coercion, just a sense of wild excitement and forbidden fantasies fulfilled, as men conjoin with their lust out of control.

This picture and centrepiece of the biker triptych of '76 cover pretty much the same subject but they couldn't be more different. The calculating sadism of the cops has been supplanted by unbridled lust, their scornful detachment turned to avid involvement and despite them being saddled here with some rather ponderous poses, the whole picture seethes with movement and excitement all of which is focussed by multiple convergent lines onto the biker's expectant rosebud.

In this picture Tom has regained his old touch and it comes from an extraordinarily fertile period where he suddenly seemed to rediscover the ability to be sexy, which he had had in the 60's and could now approach with a more developed technique. It's probably no coincidence that in this period gay men suddenly found themselves fighting for liberation all over again as AIDS spread across the world and they were blamed for it. This is Tom's response, shouting from the rooftops that Gay is OK!

This is about the last of Tom's fetish scenes, drawn a few years before he died. The bodily bulk of these men gives the picture an extra earthiness which is absent in earlier works. Muscular pseudo-cops bestride Tom's final pictures, bursting out of their uniforms, confident in their power and sexuality and using both to entrap and discipline other men. They are the final re-incarnation, the final evolution of Kake. How ironic it is, that he is now attired in the uniform of his former oppressors.
Tom's imaginative compositions and sensual style have inspired many artists, it might be said that he made gay erotic art respectable. For example number of his 'fight' pictures were adapted by Tam in his early work, his Jack in the Jungle/Tarzan Totem poles were borrowed by Sergey while Michael copied his work wholesale. The meticulously detailed work of 'Musclemaxx' Chris with it's muscular, mighty-cocked sex-heroes is amazingly Tom-like and yet totally distinctive. You can also see Tom's influence in the faces of Sabian and a pose copied by Rick Hard.

This series of articles has rambled through many aspects of Tom's life and work in an attempt to share and explain my admiration both for him and for what he gifted (almost unwittingly) to gay men everywhere – pleasure, comfort, hope and identity. He seems to have been an ordinary man, mild and modest with a special talent and a burning indignation against injustice which surfaced occasionally in his amazingly detailed chronicle of gay life, couched in the language that we all share – our sexuality.

Tom changed my life and doubtless some of yours. Nuff said.


I want to acknowledge my sources for this article:
"Tom of Finland Retrospective I" (published by GMP 1988),
"Tom of Finland Retrospectives II & III"
(Published by Tom of Finland Foundation 1991 & 1997)
"The Art of Pleasure" (published by Taschen 1998)
"Tom of Finland – His Life and Times” by F Valentine Hooven
( Published by St Martin's Press, 1993)
The Tom of Finland Foundation link is in the sidebar
Links to previous articles: Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3 , Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 , Part 7, Part 8

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


speedoric said...

Mitch thanks for this exhaustive analysis of Tom's many phases and styles: you really do take this almost to the level of art-criticism. But even better you take us back to drawing and to sex.

Mitchell said...

I probably overstep my competence in the art criticism department, but it's a pure labour of love!