Edith of Finland

Edith Hammar takes us to the queer Helsinki of the 1950s.

Edith Hammar, from Portal, Förlaget M, 2023.

Lust is a recurring motif in Edith Hammar’s depictions of androgynous people. Their black and white drawings are overflowing with non-normative sexual energy. It is unashamedly queer, but the radical aspect of Hammar’s art is not sex per se. Rather, the transgression lies in the sense of calm and security that arises when the works’ horny characters convene. Their desire is not inhibited by the shame of the Christian tradition, nor is it disturbed by any patriarchal power dynamics. Desire does not take the form of an urgent heat, and although Hammar often makes visual references to Tom of Finland, they do not depict clichés such as quick anonymous hookups. There’s never a rush to get anywhere; the artist’s subjects have endless time to enjoy themselves and be kinky.

When Hammar adopts the comic book format, however, the passage of time becomes an inevitable part of the whole. Gone are the pleasurable visions in which time stands still. In the meditative debut book Homo Line (Förlaget M, 2020), Hammar’s alter ego flits between Helsinki and Stockholm in a state of chronic homesickness and wants to “go back to 4-ever.” They are anxious about the demands of the future and wish for “the rapids to flow backwards.” In the sequel, the newly published graphic novel Portal (Förlaget M, 2023), Hammar explores similar torments through fiction.

The intrigue-charged story is set in a wintry Helsinki. The main character Elia is a weary 20-something. They haven’t got the will to stay late at their best friends’ house party and increasingly choose to ice skate alone instead of attending film nights or meeting up with friends. “Are you getting depressed again?” their friend Kiril asks over a cup of tea. Elia replies with an evasive “naa?” and refrains from telling the real reason for their absence: they have discovered a portal to early 1950s Helsinki by the ice rink and have got to know the handsome and cool Elin “Eki” Koskela, who drives a shiny Moskvitch and publishes a queer underground magazine.

Hammar’s comics may have a different atmosphere from their outrageous and joyful drawings, but visually they are virtually identical. The dense black lines and the perfect balance of detail and pared-down expression remain. On one spread, a simple portrait of Eki in profile is contrasted with a very precise drawing of the working-class neighbourhood Punavuori before its old wooden houses were torn down in the 1970s. And although Elia and Eki are both the kind of figure that has become Hammar’s trademark – androgynous, short-haired, dressed in trousers and boots – their respective time periods can be interpreted from things like the way their fringe hangs.

The transition from wordless works to comic strips is largely successful, and Portal is beautifully and lovingly executed. It is only in the dialogue that Hammar has difficulty fully communicating the emotional depth of the characters. These queer heroes have inscrutable and amused expressions of the same kind that adorn the faces of archaic sculptures. In Portal, Hammar chooses not to dramatically deviate from this, depicting all characters with their mouths closed throughout. It looks nice, but it hinders the more sensitive points.

Edith Hammar, Portal, cover, Förlaget M, 2023.

An important theme in both Homo Line and Portal is the constant threat of physical violence under which people belonging to a sexual minority live. In Portal, homophobia is present in both Elia’s present and Eki’s 1950s. When Kiril talks about being attacked at a gym, tears flow, but body language and expressions remain neutral. Similarly, the climactic sex scene between Elia and Eki ends surprisingly abruptly. The deepest valleys and highest peaks are tell instead of show. The extent of the emotions that lead to Elia’s escapist and dreamlike visits to Eki remains something of a mystery.

In Homo Line, Hammar emphasises that “homosexuality is […] an unavoidable part of Finnish history.” Portal is about just that, and is an excellent addition to the alternative writing of history that takes the conditions of minorities into account. It is related to Heidi Airaksinen’s sympathetic queer crime novel Vierge moderne (Modern Virgin, 2021) set in 1930s Helsinki, and also brings to mind the Helsinki Art Museum’s exhibition Gender Confusion (2019–20), which consisted of queer postcards and photographs from the early 20th century. Kiasma’s Tom of Finland retrospective from earlier this year also comes to mind; its major problem was the total lack of accounting for Touko Laaksonen’s artistic influence, and Portal convinced me that it was a mistake of epic proportions not to include Hammar in the exhibition in some way.

Hammar, a graduate of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, seems to be more appreciated in Sweden than in their native country, and Portal was rightly nominated for the new Swedish LGBTQI+ literature prize Prisma, which will be awarded in December. In Finland, the finalists in the Sarjakuva-Finlandia comic book competition have not yet been announced, but it is clear that the odds of Portal winning the main prize are low. Kiril’s black hair fluttering in the wind and Elias and Eki’s last touch are reasons enough in themselves.

Edith Hammar, Matches, ink on paper, 85 x 130 cm, 2020. The work was shown in Matches. Swedish Acquisitions at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2022.