Tom’s World

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The celebratory stamps produced by the Finnish postal service in 2014.

A post for Touko Valio Laaksonen, the man known to the world as Tom of Finland, born 100 years ago today. Back in March I finally acquired Tom of Finland XXL, a gorgeous, heavyweight Taschen volume edited by Dian Hanson, as a result of which Tom and his leather-clad muscle-men have been in my thoughts even without his anniversary. The thick-necked hunks that populate Tom’s drawings have never been my ideal of masculine beauty but I admire his dedication to erotic obsession as well as his draughtsmanship, the latter even more so after seeing the high-quality reproductions in Hanson’s collection. The drawings from the 1970s and 80s are especially impressive, when success had given the artist more time to spend perfecting his figures and capturing all the ways that leather apparel folds itself and reflects the light. His beautiful pencil renderings of jackets, trousers and boots treat their subjects to the careful scrutiny that Dutch still-life painters used to devote to pheasants and apples; this is a fetishist’s infatuation raised to the status of art.

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Leather duo (1963).

Tom of Finland’s progress from amateur pornographer to gallery artist and national institution is a very unlikely career path, especially when he wasn’t dependent on the support of the art market. Tom’s earliest drawings and comic strips were relatively simple things but still explicit enough for the Finnish authorities in the 1940s to find them obscene. Many erotic artists have been subject to similar opprobrium but none of them have achieved posthumous fame as the most internationally visible male artist from the nation that once proscribed their work, and all this without toning down that work in any way. Tom shares his celebrity with Moomin creator Tove Jansson, which means that Finland is now the only nation in the world whose art is represented internationally by a gay man and a lesbian. Their work, needless to say, could hardly be more different, despite both artists being adept at black-and-white illustration and the creation of sequential narratives. Jansson’s Moomins have been universally popular for many years but Tom of Finland’s art, which has never been anything other than gay pornography, is inevitably limited in its appeal. The lavish depictions of cock-sucking and anal sex are so profuse and unrelenting that whatever is shown of his drawings in the general media is always carefully selective, shunning the enormous penises in favour of a moustached face or a pair of embracing clones.

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I’m amused by this and also reassured that there are still a few aspects of human life that are too anarchic for exploitation by mass media. The global domination of American culture and American technology has rendered everything grist to its all-devouring mill, everything, that is, except for explicit sex. Pornography is also a part of the US cultural behemoth but it’s like the bastard child that everybody pretends doesn’t exist and wishes would go away. America’s gay publications gave Tom of Finland his nom de plume and made him famous, but porn, for a variety of reasons, resists universal acceptance and approval. Tom’s art is so single-minded in its representation of gay men gleefully fucking each other that there’s little about it that can be exploited by cultural products intended to appeal to the widest audience, or sold to nations with repressive attitudes to gay sex and sexuality. Tom’s libidinous leather-clad hero, Kake, ejaculates his way through multiple penetrations and gang bangs the likes of which you’ll never see in a big-budget franchise, no matter how much Hollywood teases audiences with more polite same-sex scenarios. How many erections are a paying audience prepared to swallow?

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Querelle de Brest

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Querelle de Brest (1947) by Jean Genet. Cover design by Jean Cocteau.

This weekend’s viewing was Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) which is marvellous in its new Blu-ray transfer, and a great improvement on the muddy picture of the earlier DVD release. The film is still only the briefest sketch of Genet’s novel (although Genet biographer Edmund White enjoyed it) but I like the overheated atmosphere, the phallic set designs, Franco Nero (hey, it’s Django Gay!), and the film as a whole is a fitting memorial to Brad Davis, everyone’s favourite sweating matelot. So in honour of all that, here’s a small collection of Querellerie past and present.

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Querelle de Brest was published in a limited edition of 525 copies illustrated throughout by Jean Cocteau who didn’t avoid the pornographic details. Even though copies were seized by the authorities, and the author fined, Cocteau’s involvement did little to harm his public reputation, something that’s impossible to imagine happening elsewhere. A few of the illustrations follow below, many more of the series can be found scattered across various websites.

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Lonesome Cowboys

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Years before Brokeback Mountain, and a few years before The Place of Dead Roads, another pair of gay cowboys were causing a stir on a T-shirt in the SEX boutique, London, a shop run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in the mid-1970s. Paul Gorman’s latest piece of pop archaeology examines the history and possible genesis of this shirt, one of a number designed by McLaren whose challenging nature made them ideal gear for the first wave of London’s punks. SEX specialised in transgression (and was famously the birthplace of the Sex Pistols), selling fetish and bondage clothing, and with a variety of erotic material on its hand-made shirts. But it was the Cowboys image which caused the most fuss in 1975 when the shop-owners were prosecuted for “exposing to public view an indecent exhibition”, a piece of police action that was all-too-common during that decade, especially where punks were concerned. McLaren’s cowboys might seem quaint today but in 1975 this was a shocking image for a country which had only decriminalised homosexual acts eight years before, and where the only gay people in the media (although they never admitted it) were camp comedians and flamboyant sitcom stereotypes.

So much for the history but we still don’t know the origin of the picture. Paul has his own theories; mine would be that McLaren borrowed this from one of the many gay mags which proliferated post-Stonewall. It’s not a Tom of Finland drawing, and it’s not George Quaintance either, an artist who drew many naked cowboys but never showed any genitalia. Vivienne Westwood still sells a version of the shirt: yours for ninety quid, dearie. Meanwhile, you can see a couple of the original Lonesome Cowboys here.

Update: That didn’t take long… It was Jim French after all. Paul has the details.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
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More Queer Noise

Philippe Jullian, connoisseur of the exotic

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Monsieur Jullian as seen on the back cover of Dreamers of Decadence (1971).

Here at last is the long-promised (and long!) piece about the life and work of Philippe Jullian (1919–1977), a French writer and illustrator who’s become something of a cult figure of mine in recent years. Why the fascination? First and foremost because at the end of the 1960s he wrote Esthètes et Magiciens, or Dreamers of Decadence as it’s known to English readers, a book which effectively launched the Symbolist art revival and which remains the best introduction to Symbolist art and the aesthetic hothouse that was the 1890s. If I had to choose five favourite books Dreamers of Decadence would always be on the list. This point of obsession, and Philip Core’s account of the writer, made me curious about the rest of Jullian’s career.

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left: An illustration from Wilson & Jullian’s For Whom the Cloche Tolls (1953). “Tata has called these his Krafft-Ebbing (sic) pictures of his friend Kuno, whatever that means.”

Philip Core was friends with Philippe Jullian, and Core’s essential Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984) has Jullian as one of its dedicatees. It’s to Core’s appraisal that we have to turn for details of the man’s life. There is an autobiography, La Brocante (1975), but, like a number of other Jullian works, this doesn’t seem to have been translated and my French is dismally pauvre. Core’s piece begins:

Philippe Jullian, born to the intellectual family of Bordeaux Protestants which produced the well-known French historian, Camille Jullian, was a last and lasting example of pre-war camp. His career began as an artist in Paris with a reputation for drag-acts parodying English spinsters. Snobbery, a talent for sensitive daydreaming, and a consuming passion for antiques, obscure art and social history, made a very different figure out of the thin and dreamy young man. Jullian suffered terribly during the Second World War; he managed to survive by visiting some disapproving cousins dressed as a maiden aunt, whom they were happy to feed. However, he made a mark in the world of Violet Trefusis, Natalie Barney and Vita Sackville-West by illustrating their books with his wiry and delicate doodles; this led to a social connection in England, where he produced many book jackets and covers for Vogue throughout the 1950s.

Having only seen Jullian in his besuited and bespectacled guise it’s difficult to imagine him dragged up, but the cross-dressing interest is apparent in his humorous collaboration with Angus Wilson and in a later novel, Flight into Egypt. As for the wiry and delicate doodles, they’re very much of their time, in style often resembling a less-assured Ronald Searle. One early commission in 1945 was for the first of what would become a celebrated series of artist labels for Château Mouton Rothschild. Later cover illustrations included a run for Penguin Books some of which can be found at Flickr.

Philip Core continues the story:

Elegant in the austerely tweedy way the French imagine to be English, Jullian exploited his very considerable talents as a writer, producing a series of camp novels throughout the 1950s (Scraps, Milord) which deal frankly but amusingly with the vicissitudes of handsome young men and face-lifted ladies, grey-haired antique dealers and criminals. One of the first to reconsider Symbolist painting, Jullian reached an enormous public in the 1960s with his gorgeous book, Dreamers of Decadence – where an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and its accompanying literature helped to create the boom in fin de siècle revivalism among dealers and museums.

An acerbic wit accompanied this vast worldly success; always docile to duchesses, Jullian could easily remark to a hostess who offered him a chocolate and cream pudding called Nègre en chemise, “I prefer them without.” Less kindly, to a gay friend who objected to Jullian’s poodles accompanying them into a country food shop by saying “Think where their noses have been”, he could also retort “Yes, that’s what I think whenever I see you kiss your mother.”

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Weekend links 37

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Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is fifty-years old this year, an occasion celebrated with a limited UK cinema run and a reissue on Blu-ray and regular DVD. This was the film which famously ended Powell’s career as a director in Britain for reasons which have never been quite clear. Was the film’s critical vilification the culmination of an impatience with the director’s alleged excesses over the years? Was it an unarticulated discomfort at the way Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks implicated themselves and the audience in the sordid murders they (we) were watching in the dark? Or was the film withdrawn simply because producer Nat Cohen wanted a knighthood and was worried over his reputation as a peddler of “filth”? The bitterest blow for Powell would have been seeing his long-time rival Alfred Hitchcock have another success a few months later with Psycho, a film which allows its audience similar female-slaughtering thrills without questioning the role of the viewer in sustaining the drama. Hitchcock spent much of his career “punishing” women in a manner that verges on outright misogyny yet was indulged all along by audience and critics; Powell made a single film about a murderer and was himself punished for it. His other films often featured strong female characters, and I’ve long regarded him as the superior artist.

The Guardian this week celebrated Powell’s film with a number of articles: Peeping Tom may have been nasty but it didn’t deserve critics’ cold shoulder, Peeping Tom, pornography and the press, The Peeping Tom timebomb.

A Wizard of Earthsea: an unfilmed screenplay from 1983 by Michael Powell and Ursula K Le Guin based on Le Guin’s first two Earthsea novels.

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A boy in a dress with mother and sister, 1860. Yesterday was the 12th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Quaintance by Reed Massengill and Dian Hanson, in which the pioneer of 20th century beefcake art gets the heavyweight Taschen treatment. Expensive but they’re making these volumes for obsessives. Related: Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition of gay and lesbian art at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The gallery has a preview of the exhibition here. On a more humble level, BUTT magazine has a recreation of Quentin Crisp’s inevitably messy New York City apartment.

• From gay art to gay song and dance: Queer To The Core!: Queer Rock From The Vaults! Super-rare novelty singles with titles like Queer Police by Billy Devroe and The Devilaires. Meanwhile Cleveland Street: The Musical is a forthcoming stage celebration of Victorian London’s notorious male brothel. By Glenn Chandler, creator of the popular TV detective series Taggart (!) whose earlier musicals have titles like Boys of the Empire and Scouts in Bondage.

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Strikingly androgynous male model Andrej Pejic photographed by Armin Morbach. There’s a lot more Andrej Pejic at Homotography.

Thrilling Wonder Stories II, “eight hours of architectural futurism featuring an unbelievable line-up of novelists, game designers, animators, scientists, comic book artists, architects, and more”. At the Architectural Association, London, November 26.

• “The iPad is one of the oldest things in the world…a pad or a slate.” Artist Tom Phillips reworks A Humument for a new medium. Related: Creating new books from old, in which Jonathan Safran Foer follows Phillips’ lead by cutting words from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create a new work, Tree of Codes.

• “Technology is turning us into switchboard operators in the communication networks of our own lives.” I know the feeling. Rick Poynor on the seductive tyranny of design technology.

• Comic artist Moebius gets the Tumblr treatment. And speaking of Tumblr, my thanks to everyone who’s been reblogging the Cephalopod Bride.

Skull Comics, 1970–72, at Golden Age Comic Book Stories. Underground artists excavate Lovecraftian horrors, among other things.

The lost town of Dunwich.

The Bells of Dunwich (1975) by Stone Angel | Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960 (1982) by Brian Eno.