Review: The Body in Question by Peter FlinschThe Body in Question
Edited with an Introduction by Ross Higgins and a Preface by Thomas Waugh
Published by: Arsenal Pulp Press
Review by Jonathan Statham
The Body in Question offers a glimpse into the world of artist Peter Flinsch. Born in Germany in 1920 he was drafted into the Luftwaffe at eighteen; at twenty-one he was caught kissing a fellow officer and sentenced to serve in a punitive unit clearing landmines. After the war, as an East German Flinsch was put to work by the Communists painting murals of Marx and Lenin. Bored with this he moved, eventually, to Montreal. There he worked in television but increasingly concentrated on his own, more personal art, an art that expressed his gay desires and demonstrated a passionate interest, aesthetic and erotic, in the male body: this is the work collected in The Body in Question (introduced lucidly and insightfully by Ross Higgins). It invokes a world of bodies, particularly though not exclusively male and homosexual, and of the places where they reach out for, and sometimes shy away from, each other: the bar, the sauna, the beach, the changing room, the boxing ring, the gym, the bedroom. Flinsch’s bodies wrestle, dance, fuck, caress and rest in an accomplished exploration of the male form as well as of male sociality and sexuality.
Flinsch draws and paints in diverse styles, always in an effort to capture the peculiar energy of a specific body. Speaking of his work, Flinsch frequently compares himself to a camera and while his work is never directly realistic it nonetheless strives to express the essence of what is seen, of what is being seen – for Flinsch’s bodies are almost always being looked at and often they seem aware that they are being looked at, be that by another figure in the painting, by the artist as he sketches or by the viewer who gazes at the completed work. The body for Flinsch is always caught in a gaze (and sometimes gives as good as it gets). It is always being put ‘in question’ by a gaze that socialises it, sometimes brutally, sometimes tenderly. For example, in ‘Sand in My Eye’ [plate 79] and ‘Jeff and Red Drape’ [plate 80] the central nude figure appears self-conscious, demonstrating a heightened awareness of their own bodies because aware of the eye that perceives them, as if (in different ways) they were inviting the gaze or content to be in it. Alternatively, in ‘The Frisco Kid’ [plate 85] we have a character sitting alone in a busy bar, abandoned by the gaze: thus Flinsch criticises the harshness of the communal gay gaze while also offering, in the medium of art, a possible redemption in that we find ourselves gazing at the beauty of the lonely young man. Perhaps this is a release also for Flinsch, from the experience of having his sexuality subjected to a violently homophobic gaze by the Nazis (in the criminal unit to which he was assigned he was required every morning to declare the homosexual nature of his crime).
Flinsch’s technique is ideally suited to an exposition of the queer gaze. He is particularly given to the use of outline: from just a few marks on a page the contours of a body will emerge (as in ‘Ben B.’ [plate 4]), or a face can peer out of a dense mass of scribbles (as in ‘Suppliant’ [plate 71]). In either case, the viewer’s gaze is dramatically engaged and they are made complicit in the appearance of the body on the page. In ‘Talk Me Into It’ [plate 48] Flinsch goes further in the use of outline by drawing one over another in a palimpsest to expose the social dynamic of the sexual pick-up. Flinsch explores yet more possibilities of playing with outline in ‘Unfinished but Complete’ [plate 86] where two figures seem to merge in a morass of scribbles, losing their outline at the places where they touch as an expression of their emotional state. Again this effect relies the journey of the viewer’s eye as they explore the lines Flinsch has made, just as the eye roves over a body we find attractive.
This sensitivity to the subtleties of the expressive, perceived body is cast by Flinsch into a profoundly comic tone. Perhaps perversely, I often found myself reminded of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, but with a sensibility more akin to Tom of Finland. Unlike Tom’s entertainingly outrageous distortions, however, Flinsch’s works tend toward the meditative and observant. A wry but never mordant sense of humour is at work here and it animates the paintings: not only do they suggest stories to the viewer but the people represented are never mere ‘figures’ but always more properly ‘characters’, expressing the sense of a whole life at work in the individual body.
Those who are interested should also look at http://www.peterflinsch.com/ where many more of Flinsch’s artworks in various styles can be viewed. He offers us an illumination of the body and perhaps of the question in the body which sexuality, in all its forms, is the struggle to answer. For some of us, in our own lives this book might itself prove a tool in that process.
Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.