07/12/98Lawn and Order.
Date: 7/12/1998; Publication: Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland);
IN THE autumn of 1966 Ian Hamilton Finlay began a work of art. It is still not complete. This is not because Finlay is an excessively slow artist. He is not. Nor is it because, as he is well aware, no work of art is ever quite finished - always taking on something new from successive generations. It is because Finlay's magnum opus is not what you might ordinarily call a work of art. It is a garden. Little Sparta, at Dunsyre in Lanarkshire, home for the last 32 years to Finlay, his wife and children, is one of the most beautiful gardens you will ever see. It is also arguably one of the most important works of art of our time. Although Finlay has in the past opened his garden to select visitors, now its complex character can be experienced by a wider audience, thanks to an extraordinary series of photographs by Robin Gillanders, which go on view at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week.
Over the past few years, Gillanders has visited Finlay's garden and has slowly created images which convey more succinctly than any critical writing a sense of its mystery and artistic cohesion. The empathy is evident in Gillanders's photograph of Finlay in a rowing boat - echoing the artist's own famous homage to Purvis's Poor Fisherman as much as it does an image of Charon on the Styx. This is not simply a case of one artist paying homage to another, it is a close collaboration of intellects. The photographs are sensitive, subtle, black and white studies with a tonal resonance which perfectly suits their subject - the real focus of this show - Finlay's garden. Built on a derelict croft in the Southern Uplands, it is a living allegory - at once an encapsulation of the principles of his art and a history of his career to date.
Ian Hamilton Finlay emerged on the British art scene in the early Sixties as the co-founder of the radical Wild Hawthorn Press and for three decades has been an international voice and a thorn in the side of the establishment. Despite acclaim abroad and some significant public exhibitions, he has consistently been denied major recognition in his home country and is still labelled an eccentric. However, he is more than this. He is one of the great artists of the 20th century.
Born in 1925, Finlay is of the generation of Paolozzi and Davie. His art, though, is very different. First and foremost Finlay is a poet. His pieces, some 40 of which punctuate his garden, are - to use a post-modernist buzzword - concrete poems. Essays in calm, considered, purposeful thought, often they are intellectual exercises drawing on a treasury of creative and philosophical writings, from Heraclitus and Goethe to Pater, Hesse and Apollinaire. Each work has its own integrity and its place in the greater scheme of Finlay's oeuvre.
Working, unabashedly with skilled artist/assistants, he creates supreme examples of a perfect marriage of form and function - elegant, beautiful and erudite. All of Finlay's work - whether incised in stone or printed on paper -announces in its very simplicity his position of the neo-classical.
Who else could have converted their own house into a temple of Apollo or erected in their garden a stone statue of a nuclear submarine? Who else would have you enter a hidden glade to stumble on a giant, gold-leaf-covered head of Apollo, across whose brow has been inscribed the words "Apollon Terroriste"?
For Finlay, who has in the past been criticised for his stylistic severity and content and ludicrously branded everything from a crackpot to an anti-Semite, classicism means order. Yet his works, which often involve emblems and icons from ancient Rome, Nazi Germany and the French Revolution, are by no means misplaced celebrations of the politics of terror or some fanciful Uber-Reich, but clues to a possible redemption of mankind.
To Finlay, both militarism and classicism lie deep within the universal psyche. Classicism, of course, is derived by man from nature - the wooden post and lintel of the primitive hut becoming the temple doorway. Militant imagery is not used by Finlay to condone violence but functions as a visual metaphor for a primeval force at work within the world.
Finlay is concerned principally with what drives mankind; our need for order, what our motives are and how we construct the control systems by which we realise our aims. His art plays upon ambiguities. How a guillotine resembles both a temple arch and a garden trellis. How the skull in 17th-century old master memento mori paintings becomes, two centuries on, the emblem of the SS.
Finlay once wrote: "A garden is not an object but a process." Gardening for Finlay is a metaphor for the perpetual struggle of mankind to create order from chaos. He has described his own garden as "a setting in which pigeons can appear as doves" and this air of transformation is clearly evident in Gillanders's photographs. Like Finlay's garden, these are more than objects. They are both a memorialisation of a work of art and an intimate portrait of an artist. Famously, the idea of biography is anathema to Finlay. Here then is the nearest thing we can have to a personal understanding of one of the most extraordinary creative figures of our time.
* Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh, July 17 - November 29
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