Peter Flinsch is not a household name in Canada, but in Peter Flinsch: The Body in Question (Arsenal Pulp, $28), Montreal professor Ross Higgins both tells and shows why this artist ought to be a stop in any tour of Canadian art history.
Higgins’ elegant book, a combination 50-page biography and 110-page print exhibition, offers a terrific and engrossing introduction to the man and his work.
Higgins begins with a look at Flinsch’s life, for which the word “varied” is an understatement. Born into a well-off family in 1920, Flinsch was a youth in Nazi Germany.
The snapshots of that period include his early artistic work being torched by advancing Russian troops, obligatory membership in Hitler Youth, protecting transports as part of the German Luftwaffe, being arrested and jailed at 22 for homosexuality, and later being sent to Russia and North Africa to clear landmines — and contract malaria.
Postwar citizenship meant official re-education. For Flinsch that meant a fortuitous job painting sets (albeit in East Germany), marriage, a move to Berlin, divorce, a sudden emigration to Vancouver (with his partner, Heino Heiden, the artistic director of the Vancouver Ballet Company in 1953), then to Montreal where he worked for Radio Canada — then nicknamed Radio Tralala because so it employed so many homosexuals!
Immersing himself in the teeming world of gay male sex culture, Flinsch never stopped making art — paintings, drawings, sculpture.
Higgins has chosen just a small portion of Flinsch’s prodigious output. His samples unveil an artist enamoured of the ordinary male form (no outlandish Tom of Finland hero worship here) — preferably nude and situated in homoerotic spaces like baths, bars and locker rooms.
While rarely porno-sexual, the images are always alive with sensual energy. Even the gently satiric images of cruising gay men are infused with erotic energy.
“I’ve seen many changes in my life, from incarceration to liberation. I hope I will see the day when the gay art movement becomes just part of the fabric of society,” Flinsch said in an interview with Higgins.
The Body in Question will no doubt introduce his work to a broad audience and help it become part of Canadian art history.