Apr 18, 2014

The Gay Surrealism of Kalervo Palsa

Kalervo Palsa (1947-1987) lived and died in a cottage near the town of Kittila, a ski resort in Lapland in the far north of Finland.  Like Veijo Rönkkönen, who worked in a paper mill in isolated Parikkala, he used his art to record gay dreams and nightmares.

Most are too graphic to display on this blog.  Instead, here's the cast of Bad Boys (Pahat pojat).


One rarely sees a moment of homoerotic joy on his surreal canvasses.  There are images of pain and death and disgust.

Kullervo from Finnish mythology, hanging himself, his belly distended, uses his penis to write "This is the world's reward to the strong."

A muscleman with a skull head is being invaded by his own intestines.

Men hang to death from their own penises.

Men have sex with inanimate objects, give birth to each other, explore weird fetishes, or just die in the mud.

Palsa also wrote and published a graphic novel, Eläkeläinen muistelee (Memoirs of a Retired Man), about the life of a successful mass-murderer and necrophiliac.

During his lifetime, his work was often censored, hidden, decried as pornographic or morbid.  But he countered "It is not enough to paint the flowers; one must also paint the gallows."

Did the association between homoerotic acts and death evoke of Palsa's self-loathing, a struggle with internalized homophobia?  Or was it a critique of conservative Finnish society, which labeled homoerotic beauty disgusting and acts between men perversions?

After his death, long-time friend and supporter Maj-Lis Pitkänen struggled to raise an appropriate tombstone, over the objections of townsfolk who disapproved of the "town pervert."

In 1999 she donated his collection of 3,000 paintings and sketches to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, which resulted in an exhibition, "Kalervo Palsa: The Second Coming," in 2002, and a re-appraisal of his work.

A fictionalized biography, The Surrealist and His Naughty Hand (Kalervo Palsa ja kuriton käs), by Pekka Lehto, premiered at the 2013 Midnight Sun Film Festival, and is scheduled for theatrical release later this year.  It stars Janne Reinikainen as Kalervo and Antti Raivio as his brother.

See also: Kristjan Raud; Lembit Sarapuu.