Peter Flinsch in Luftwaffle Uniform (Malines, Belgium)
Pastel & ink on paper
14 x 11"
Beware of a Man with His Hands Behind His Back
Ink and watercolor on paper
14 x 11"
Deux devant un mur jaune
Pastel on paper
24 x 18"
I Am A Head Hunter
Ink & watercolor on paper
14 x 11"
Collection Wayne Snellen
As in an epic fairy tale, our Prince Charming, Peter Flinsch, was a perfectly beautiful baby, born with a golden spoon in his mouth. Inevitably, a jealous Wicked Fairy spotted him and set out to destroy him. With spell after evil spell she pursued him. But our [gay] hero did triumphantly survive. “And that, my dear, is fiction,” our Oscar would have remarked. But this is a true story. Peter Flinsch is with us today, an heroic figure of strength and integrity, no hint of “victim” about him. An inspiration to those lucky enough to know him, he is a splendid man, handsome, virile, cosmopolitan, gracious, generous, witty and wise. (Am I in love?) Furthermore, he is an artist who brings to bear the genius of his life in his creation of homoerotic images.
Where did such a man come from? He was born in Leipzig, Germany, the city of Bach and Wagner, in 1920, in the luxurious bosom of wealth and cultural refinement. His father’s family was rich from paper and printing businesses in Leipzig and Frankfurt. His mother was a Thieme. Her family’s wealth came from banking and steel. These were not nouveau riche vulgarians. Grandfather Ulrich Thieme was a connoisseur of art whose collection of Dutch and Italian Renaissance masters, begun by his father, included work by Hals and Rembrandt. Ulrich also collected contemporary German art, and his portrait was painted by Lenbach, an international figure at the time. Some of this collection is now in the Leipzig art museum. He founded and financed the Thieme-Becker Kuenstler-Lexikon, an art dictionary of more than thirty volumes which is still in print today. When Flinsch was three years old his parents divorced, and thereafter his home was with his grandfather Thieme in Leipzig, and later in Chemnitz with his stepfather.
“You always wanted to draw,” his mother told him. And she remembered an early utterance from her baby son: “Gimme pen draw moon.” Flinsch notes the moon is a symbol of masculinity. Soon the little boy was drawing on his nursery walls. From the age of thirteen to eighteen, Flinsch attended a prestigious school in Germany, the Hermann Lietz Schule, at Ettersburg Castle near Weimar. The Lietz school was the model for other upper-class,
progressive schools, notably Gordonstoun in Scotland, where princes from the British royal family learned to endure Spartan conditions, including the famous icy showers. Flinsch was multilingual, as were most young gentlemen of the time, and spent time abroad with his mother, particularly in Paris.
His classmates were a cosmopolitan lot, including Christian, Prince of Hannover, grandson of the Kaiser; from Italy, twins from the great Thurn Valsassina family; the nephew of Gustav Stresemann, the Chancellor of Germany; Dietrich von Winterfeld, a scion of the Siemens family; the grandson of Field Marshal von Mackensen; the son of Graf Perponcher, the Maréchal de Cour of the emperor; and Joerg Heidegger, son of the philosopher. All these juvenile oligarchs-to-be pranced around in the showers and elsewhere, healthily, and no doubt happily, unabashed by nudity.
Flinsch grew up in a world where male nudity was not shocking. This was indeed a great feature of life in Germany and northern European countries at the turn of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century (when the U.S. Post Office became so alarmed that it established a special watch on mail from Scandinavia, to protect Americans from naked pictures). A variety of social movements were formed to resist the debilitating effects of industrialization through shed-your-clothes back-to-nature communities, with emphasis on physical culture and dance. Volleyball games with genitals bouncing en plein air were not condemned as a homosexual plot to destroy the family. Rather, nudity was seen as means to physical and mental health. (In the USA, in the 1930s, gay dancer-choreographer Ted Shawn bravely formed an all-male dancer company which, given the opportunity, liked to dance in the nude.)
This celebration of the body and freedom from prurience was reflected in the arts. In Europe, during the nineteenth century, the male nude (genitals usually draped) had eclipsed the female as preferred subject in painting and sculpture, as the pretext of Greek subject matter (Adonis, Ganymede, Hercules, etc.) gave way to the joy of exploring the infinite beauty of the male body. Fascist governments of Germany and Italy appropriated the nude male body to celebrate the homeland, the high-testosterone potency of its warrior guardians and their capacity to breed gorgeous adolescents to increase the tribe. (Finally seen beyond the pretext of propaganda, great “enemy” art is now being rehabilitated—see Mussolini’s stupendous Stadio dei Marmi in Rome, ringed by dozens of colossal statues of naked athletes and also Arno Breker’s statues in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.)
This is to say that Peter Flinsch, a gay boy, grew up in a world so unlike our [American] own. Although he would have to deal with his homosexuality, he never needed to develop furtive devices for peeping-tom-ism. His utterly respectable grandfather had a large bronze naked youth (Girdle-Binder by Hungarian sculptor Molitor) right in front of his desk in his library. This comfortable pleasure with the subject of nudity is a notable feature of Flinsch’s joyous pictures.
Flinsch was himself a handsome, blond teenager when Hitler came to power. He could have been a poster boy for the Hitler Youth, into which he and his classmates were automatically inducted. Flinsch graduated from the Lietz school in 1938, intending to study architecture at the university, but like all boys he faced compulsory military service. He decided to complete his military service before beginning his university work, so he volunteered, which gave him the option of choosing to serve in the Luftwaffe. (Field Marshal Goering, who had been an ace fighter pilot in World War I, designed striking uniforms for all the services. The Luftwaffe’s were blue and gold.) Flinsch was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit.
As World War II began, terms of enlistment were canceled. By December 1942 Flinsch had completed officer training school and was one week away from receiving his commission when he was denounced for homosexual behavior by a sergeant who disliked him. He had been seen kissing another soldier but they had not had sex. However, the Nazis had added a clause to the infamous Paragraph 175 which made even the attempt to commit a homosexual act a criminal offense. “I had done what I was accused of. I knew I was gay and admitted during my court-martial that I had gay feelings,” Flinsch said. “It was quite enough for the military court to find me guilty.” He was demoted and sentenced to three months in prison. Life as a golden boy was over. While in prison, mortally humiliated and feeling he had disgraced his family, he was planning to kill himself when his mother let him know she loved him and his inclinations made no difference to her love for him. This saved his life, liberated him, and gave him the will to live that has never left him. Ironically, kissing the soldier boy probably saved his life, for his unit was sent to the siege of Stalingrad, where it was virtually wiped out.
He was also fortunate in not being dismissed from the military, for had he been, he would have been arrested by the Gestapo and probably would have been killed
in a pink-triangle concentration camp. He went from prison directly into a strafcompanie, a punishment unit in itself a kind of death sentence, as the unit was assigned to high-risk duties such as clearing mine fields. Flinsch served in Tunisia, Sardinia and southern Italy and the Eastern Front. Soon into this duty he suffered another calamity, which would no doubt save his life again: he contracted malaria. There were no drugs for its cure at that time. It recurred every three months, disabling him and requiring hospitalization, and thus removing him from mortal danger in the battle zones.
In March 1945, Flinsch was wounded by shrapnel in Hungary and put on a Red Cross train to be taken to a military hospital in Germany. Near Prague, RAF fighter planes strafed the train, disabling it, but Flinsch survived and managed to flee the scene. He made his way to a hospital in Chemnitz where his mother lived. The Allies had recently firebombed the city. Upon his arrival he was warned that the section of his mother’s house was entirely reduced to ash, but he made his way there to find the only building still standing was his mother’s house. He knocked on the door. His mother opened it, saw her son, and fainted.
The war soon ended. Chemnitz was in Russian-occupied territory and the Russians had already chosen a city government of German Communists from the area, so the transition to peacetime was relatively smooth. The Communists were eager to rebuild the city, to create a new, free socialist society. Important in their agenda was the restoration of cultural facilities, including the opera house. Flinsch quickly found work there and became assistant to the chief designer. He also was employed painting gigantic murals and banners with Karl Marx and Lenin portraits. During this period, Flinsch learned all aspects of theater design, stagecraft, lighting, set construction. In 1946, he moved to Berlin, working for the Pankow Civic Theater. In 1947-48, he worked for the Civic Theater in Giessen, where he executed more than thirty designs. In 1950, Flinsch met dancer and choreorographer Heino Heiden, and they were lovers for the next ten years. He worked at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and then with the Ballet Abraxas Company with his partner Heino Heiden solo dancer at the State Opera. In 1952 they went together to Paris, where Flinsch made the acquaintance of leading figures in the arts, such as Cocteau and Roland Petit. In 1953, Heiden became maitre de ballet at the Munich Gaertnerplatz Theater, and Flinsch was designing publicity for Air France, which he particularly enjoyed because it meant free air tickets to his beloved Paris.
In 1953, Heiden received an offer to found a ballet company in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Flinsch worked alongside him, managing their tours, designing sets and costumes. In Montreal,
he was hired as set designer
for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He became Art Director for Radio Canada, the French language branch of CBC, where he continued until his retirement in 1985. During this period, he designed operas, dramas, children’s shows, weekly series and variety shows, and mounted musicals for summer stock in Columbus, OH and Washington, DC.
Although he made a career in theater design, simultaneously Flinsch created an enormous oeuvre of drawings, paintings and sculpture. With economic security, “I never had to ask myself if I dared expose my art or if I thought it would sell.” He thereby was able to focus his tremendous talent on full expression of his homoerotic concerns. In 1972, looking at the magazine After Dark (a popular gay magazine disguised as a theater magazine), he decided to visit its editor Bill Como in New York. Peter Flinsch was soon featured in After Dark. At this time, he also met Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, and they promptly gave him a show in their SoHo gallery. SoHo then was deserted after 5:00 P.M., and Flinsch recalled that nobody came to his first opening in 1971. Charles spotted a man carrying a suitcase coming down the street, and invited him to come in, plying him with wine and cheese and a little tour of the show. Then the man opened his suitcase, which was full of buffalo steaks he was trying to sell. Flinsch’s second show was, however, a tremendous success. It was presented in the form of a “happening,” then all the rage, and featured Flinsch drawing from a nude model. The waiting line to get into the gallery stretched down the block.
In the decades since, Flinsch has had many solo exhibitions, and his work has entered public and private collections throughout Europe and North America. He told Lester Strong, “I try to communicate the beauty of the body, the beauty of the male body, and in a very positive sense. I say yes to the body. I don’t deny it. I never have. You can say I’m optimistic. If you ask me about my experience being gay I’m a very great optimist. If anyone had told me in 1943 [when he was contemplating suicide] that sixty years later I would see what I see today, and be able to talk about it, I would have.... I mean, you know, it’s a miracle. I never would have believed it. Even with the anti-gay backlash that happens, I’m an optimist, very positive.” A Good Fairy was watching out for Flinsch and brought him to “live happily ever after.” His story is an inspiration for us all.
Peter Flinsch, imageman, man of infinite images, has given us a glorious body of masculine bodies, reflecting his unquenchable joie de vivre and his infectious optimism. And at this moment in history, when we really need it.
Les Images—The Art of Peter Flinsch opens at Leslie/Lohman Tuesday Sept. 12, 2006 at 6pm.
Mr. Flinsch will receive the first Leslie/Lohman Lifetime Achievement
Award at a Members-Only Soirée on Friday, Sept. 15 at 7pm.