Never have I felt more of a wariness of Übermensch masculine worship before moving to Berlin. “Gay mecca” it may be, but one whose chosen people seem only to look like the men illustrated by Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland: Berghain bears, muscle daddies, sauna Herren, et al. But the manuscript status of Tom’s drawings in the exhibition ‘Ecce Homo’, currently on view at Galerie Judin, lack the sheen of his finished work. As drafts and sketches, their fantastic masculinity is kept historicized, humble, affixed to the matte backing with little strips of tape.
Galerie Judin also privileges the dating of each work, printing at ankle height their year of non-completion, ranging from the 1940s to the ’80s. History humbles me too; I have to check myself as a 21st-century, queer-theory-reading, hard-ish twink: Illinois becomes the first state to decriminalize sodomy in 1958; printing male nudity was decriminalized in the early ’60s (beforehand, it was all about on-the-low “beefcake” magazines posing as exercise manuals with centerfold models posing in g-strings). The Stonewall riots are in 1969; nine years later Harvey Milk is assassinated. A few more years and the AIDS epidemic begins to tear into the gay community, leading to the formation of groups like ‘ACT UP’, whose political legacy I am surely indebted to.
The sketches disarmed my expectations, anyway. Some are so abstracted that their pictorial relation to men fucking is about as clear as Frank Gehry’s impressionistic, initial sketches of his buildings (in F. Valentine Hooven’s ‘Tom of Finland: His Life and Times’, the artist is quoted stating, “Sometimes those first few lines cut the paper into such satisfying shapes that I don’t want to go on…”). In pencil, rather than the institutional liquid of ink, men are not set. Pencil marks exist in a gray zone; they’re mutable and smudged. With a mark that is erasable, friendly to error, they are often the tool with which we learned to write as children. For this reason, I always find a presence of the past in pencil drawings. The dull shimmer, the stylus points splintering and smoking across a page: their lines can have a ghostly quality. Many of Tom’s men here possess that kind of phantom body defined by dispossessed limbs, faces rendered with great detail and shading, but legs trailing off into vapor, the page’s void. On the other hand, the drawings-as-drafts are distinctly corporeal: the pages have folds, tears, wrinkles like skin. They have wear, whereas their content is all erotic ideal and, in that sense, disembodied.
Jean Bellemin-Noël, a key scholar in the field of genetic criticism—which studies writers’ manuscripts and marginalia—states in his essay ‘Psychoanalytic Reading and the Avant-texte’: “The term ‘rough draft(s)’…bothered me for two main reasons. First, it connoted something tangled [embrouillé] or un-straightened [non-débrouillé], that is, a process of groping.” Bellemin-Noël disputes the idea of drafts and preliminary sketches being test-runs or duds of the writer who slowly makes their way, draft by draft, to the complete or intended meaning of a text. Instead, they are to be treated as texts in and of themselves. No doubt, many of the drawings in ‘Ecce Homo’ are thrilling when viewed as “completed” – in the center of a page, dwarfed by white space, a floating hand entering an asshole whose constituent thighs trail off before the knees – but they are rough in form and content, involve quite a lot of groping, and celebrate a sexuality most definitely non-débrouillé. And in the late ’50s, when Tom was drawing the roving leather daddies, bikers, and cruisers, the drawings were tangling agents not only to post-WWII ideals of domesticity and settlement, but the effeminate stereotype of gay men, as well. In the present day, a celebration of femme embodiment seems to me quite urgent; but 60 years ago, Tom was outlining an alterity for how gay men should and could present.
In Tom’s hyper-masculine fantasy world, a fraternal eroticism flows freely between men; dynamics of power exist only to give dimension to sexual play. The police force, a central force authority and discipline, seems not to act within any system of subjugation or violence greater than the bondage scene. Maybe I project hamfistedly here, but the sex in this world also seems universally consensual. And rarely does Tom illustrate any kind of hardcore BDSM scene or expressions of pain. He’ll signal it—a naked man lying on the ground spread-eagled, asshole front and center, with an arm wrapped around one of the many leather army boots that step around and on him. Sometimes he shows the lead-up to the sexual scene—sauna gazes—and sometimes the illustrations don’t illustrate sex at all. There are moments of intimacy and camaraderie, which, along with Tom’s striking sense of line and shape, define these drawings as erotica rather than pornography. The latter implies a functional use; the former, an ability to propose new and transformative dimensions of the erotic.
A reading of the ‘Ecce Homo’ drawings as simple reifications of masculine dominance is further complicated by the Otherness inscribed in the bodies themselves. Some of Tom’s men take on forms that push beyond exaggeration into mutation: cocks are on the scale of fertility idol rather than pornstar; flaring out wing-like between thighs and hips, many figures have bulges whose anatomical reference I can’t even identify. The pecs of one guy are so pumped up that they resemble developed female breasts; a similarity here can be found in Michelangelo’s statue of Giuliano de’ Medici. Kooky Camille Puglia writes of this statue in ‘Sexual Personae’: “Gender in the Giuliano is barely held in balance by the male military regalia,” also pointing out his slim neck and limp wrists. Tom repurposes the regalia of (male) power—the army boot, police handcuffs, cowboy riding chaps, even the swastika—to craft an alternative sexual universe, and the bodies follow suit. The sketches are often strong enough to stand alone, but what makes ‘Ecce Homo’ so interesting is each page’s existence as a testing ground. We see fields on which Tom drew out his tactics, strategies to un-straighten the accepted forms of eroticism.