by Sohini Guha 28th May, 2020

KaoRi lies naked on the floor in a black-and-white photo, her hands bound behind her. Her hair hangs loosely over her face and the ground beneath her, her eyes closed. She seems unconscious, save for the slightest hint of a furrow in her brow. A shadow looms over her. Araki, the photographer who took the image, said he wanted it to feel like ‘someone in the subject’s inner circle shot them.’ To his credit, it does.

In comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, she asserts that the history of western art is just ‘the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers’. Whether this is true or not, modern artists could claim innocence to the effect that a portrait of a naked porcelain-skinned woman would have on a man viewing it, or in some cases, the living woman who served as the muse. They could argue (if they were all still around) that these works were translations of beauty, a beauty that is no less worthy of depiction than the beauty of the ocean, or a vase of sunflowers.

But what about Araki, who by his own design or not, has found himself among the ranks of the most prolific fetish artists in the world? As a term, ‘fetish’ has absorbed sexual connotations over the years, increasingly used to refer to subcultures like BDSM, domination/submission or transvestism. Could creators of fetish art – a genre that, by definition, is inextricably close to arousal and sex – claim the same innocence? In other words, who draws the line between fetish art and pornography?

Nude art has existed since art itself. It’s more determined cousin, fetish art, began to spring up commercially around the 1940s. At the time, Irving Klaw was an enterprising bookstore owner who had no idea that he was to become the Pin-Up King. While not an artist himself, Klaw commissioned fetish art from forerunners in the field like Eric Stanton and Gene Bilbrew.

Island of Captive Girls by Gene Bilbrew

Klaw makes himself a figure of particular interest in that he sought no artistic exploration in his merchandise. He was a man that saw a gap in the market and quite literally, on his shelves. His enterprise, insipidly called ‘Movie Star News’, was conceived when he realized teenage boys were ripping out pictures of scantily clad women from magazines. Klaw had his finger on the pulse of what men at the time wanted, and within years it was a booming business. ‘Damsel-in-distress’ images of models and actresses being bound and spanked were requested, and Klaw acquiesced. During the second world war, Movie Star News had 100,000 soldiers on their mail-order list.

Eric Stanton, one of the artists for Movie Star News, was more interested in a dominant woman. His personal art featured women wrestling and fighting with recurring heroes like Blunder Broad, a bungling superheroine that consistently fails at her missions. With Lady Princker, Stanton’s leading ladies got more powerful still, growing oversized penises and dominating men. While indulging his interests on the side, he also managed to fulfil Movie Star News’ penchant for bondage and submissive women.

Stanton is often touted as a proto-feminist because of his depictions of strong, unwomanly women, but it is hard to ignore the male lens through which he saw these characters. Even if one were to look past the predictably buxom bodies of his women, they have little to no agency in their ‘female’ form. The Princkazons with their penises are able to shatter this glass ceiling in Stanton’s work. Whether that has anything to do with the added appendage is for the viewer to guess at.

Blunder Broad by Eric Stanton

But let’s circle back to those buxom bodies, a mainstay in comic book art of the time and arguably in present day as well. Stanton shared a studio with renowned Marvel artist Steve Ditko and it was well-known that the two often collaborated on each other’s projects. In some ways, Stanton and Ditko exemplify the continual mingling of comic book and fetish art. Did Ditko work on stories with women being saved from burning buildings by Spiderman, while Stanton showed them being bound and gagged just a few feet away? Did Blunder Broad exist in the same space as Peter Parker, one powerless and clumsy, one heroic and capable? In both their works, one thing remained consistent – the fact that women weren’t the ones holding the power.

Blunder Broad by Eric Stanton

On the other side of the Atlantic, Hans Bellmer was gaining ground for his portrayals of more unpalatable fetishes. While America fixated on the fully formed female physique, Bellmer was preoccupied with the bodies of pre-pubescent girls. He was a sculptor and a photographer, and the violence in his mind could be felt in both. Bellmer would build dolls that were intended to be unsettling – while based on young girls, they were erotic and provocative, photographed in various stages of dismemberment, and illustrative of the aftermath of torture. Bellmer drew inspiration from Jack the Ripper and other serial murders making headlines at the time.

The Doll by Hans Bellmer, 1936

Fans (and apologists) of Bellmer’s work say that his dolls were likenesses of the Nazi regime that he loathed. At a time when Bellmer was growing increasingly disillusioned with his country and his father, he also grew infatuated with a cousin that is said to have spurred his obsession with the young female body. Even with unique formative experiences, the end result in Bellmer’s work isn’t special. Much like on the battleground and within the home, women become unwilling receptacles for the neuroses of men in Bellmer’s art as well. One wonders how one of the most oppressive regimes in the world came to be conflated with the guileless body of a child. 

When the Nazi regime branded Bellmer’s art as degenerate, Bellmer fled to France to unquestioning admiration from French surrealists, who lauded both the revolutionary, bold nature of his work and the sexualization of female youth. Bellmer once said, “The female body is like an endless sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning becomes clear through a series of endless anagrams.” In reality, Bellmer didn’t ask for or even really need an invitation. By virtue of being a man, he had the intrinsic power to change, hurt and maim women’s bodies through his art and then label it a revolution.

Nazis also found footing in the work of Touko Valio Laaksonen, better known by his pseudonym, Tom of Finland. Laaksonen pioneered homoerotic art with his hyper-masculine depictions of men. Having served in the Finnish army, Laaksonen was particularly drawn to the physique of Nazi soldiers despite being repulsed by the Nazi ideology. He later clarified that racism and oppression apart, ‘they had the sexiest uniforms’. Laaksonen’s work continues to be popular, and in addition to gay men that love his work, he has also found an unintended audience among straight young women – perhaps because of the lack of fetish art catered specifically for them.

A work by Touko Valio Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland)

Laaksonen’s work indicates a fascination with the black male body. Black men in his art were represented in ways that would be unthinkable for their real-life counterparts. Sometimes having sex with policemen or engaging in sexual sadism with white men – Laaksonen was providing a voice to a community that was struggling to find one. That he as a white man had to create representation for gay black men is not so much his failing as it is characteristic of mainstream art. It is not uncommon for cisgendered, heterosexual (and often white) communities to be given platforms to appeal for rights of marginalized communities on their behalf. Another thing that’s remained consistent since Laaksonen’s time – black men continue to be hypersexualized, with entire genres of porn dedicated to getting ‘blacked’. 

The line that separates fetish art from pornography is blurry, but it finds its roots in an age old question about all art – is it for the creator’s expression or the viewer’s consumption? Fetish art probably lies somewhere between these binaries. It has the ability to invoke desire in an audience, while representing desires of the audience as well. Often, we don’t know which came first.

To the extent that creators of fetish art have historically often (but not always) been deeply troubled personalities themselves, their art becomes an honest depiction of the most disturbed recesses of their mind. Consumers of their artwork would find it difficult to separate the art from the artist, if they even wanted to. Today, Nobuyoshi Araki continues to be a highly celebrated artist with over 500 books to his name. In April 2018, KaoRi, who worked with Araki for 15 years, accused him of varying levels of misconduct. She said, “I don’t want any more models hiding behind the mask of art, hurting in the shadows.”

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