- Peter Flinsch: The Body in Question
As might be expected, the convergence of male bodies, sexual desire, place, and speech that diagrams a politics of modern masculinity was all too acutely felt by a twenty-two-year-old member of the German Luftwaffe who, while at a military Christmas party in 1942, was caught kissing a subordinate male officer. Prosecuted for violating the German [End Page 452] penal code against homosexual acts, the young man is sentenced to the punishment of clearing the war field of landmines, having perhaps not so accidentally stepped on one marked 'homo-masculinity.'
In many respects it is this event that will set in motion the life of Peter Flinsch and that grounds Ross Higgins's biographical narrative of this gay male artist who, for the past fifty-five years in Montreal, has created a vast archive of images of iconic male figures, from which are derived the over one hundred drawings - in various and often mixed media - that have been assembled in Peter Flinsch: The Body in Question.
Born in Leipzig in 1920 to an upper-middle-class family, which included the art historian Ulrich Thieme (maternal grandfather, and founder of the authoritative, thirty-seven-volume artist's dictionary Thieme-Becker Künstler Lexikon), Flinsch grew up in a milieu of art scholarship and connoisseurship. After the war he moved to Paris and around 1952 to Vancouver, where, with his boyfriend, the dancer Heino Heiden, he founded the Vancouver Ballet. Two years later, Peter followed Heiden to Montreal, where for the next thirty years he worked as a set designer and artistic director for CBC television. Ross Higgins's introductory essay, based upon interviews with the artist over the past sixteen years, richly narrates Flinsch's life, one that has followed a dramatic course that is only hinted at by the few, albeit key, events mentioned above.
The degree to which the figures of muscular and athletically fit male bodies in Flinsch's work function as icons of gay male desire is commensurate with the lack of details that would enable one to identify the specific sexually charged social spaces in which Flinsch encountered these bodies: the locker room and sauna of the YMCA, and the bars, bathhouses, gyms, and strip joints along St Catherine Street, in Montreal's 'Village.' Whether this is explained in terms of the equally iconic status of these places such that they need only be graphically hinted at, or by the artistic desire to privilege figure over ground, or even perhaps by the liberation from the need to envision backgrounds felt by an artist whose day job required him to design backdrops and sets for ballet, theatre, and television, nonetheless, this lack of contextual detail creates a curious tension between the work and Ross Higgins's discussion of it.
For while Higgins, a professor of sexuality and anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal, author of De la clandestine a l'affirmation: pour une histoire de la communauté gaie montréalaise (1999), and an authority on the history of Montreal's gay culture, wishes to treat Flinsch's images as ethnographic visual documents of this history, the infinite recession of contextual details doesn't make Flinsch's works the most reliable guides of gay haunts. This is in no way to criticize either the artist or the writer, yet it does lead me to point to Flinsch's use of titles and declarative statements. Written right on the drawing's surface, these inscriptions can be [End Page 453] understood to exist between figure and ground, and to open up an interlocutory space that is one of the most distinct and sophisticated features of Flinsch's representation of the scenes of gay male culture.
Witty puns and double entendres (plate 23 'Three Linemen with Stiff Cables'), alliteration (plate 68 'Just Testing Testicles'), and apostrophe (plate 103 'I Am the Answer to a Virgin's Prayer'), the titles not only linguistically play with their description of the subjects represented, but at times critically comment on the very form of the work (plate 59 the...