Philosophy, gardening and the French Revolution

Sculptor, poet and Gardener's Gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay reminds us of the bloody roots of artistic freedom
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Urn / 1794 (1993) by Ian Hamilton Finlay
Urn / 1794 (1993) by Ian Hamilton Finlay

In contemporary art circles, poetry and gardening are sometimes regarded as amateurish, slightly Sunday-ish concerns, not quite as challenging as painting, sculpture or installations. Yet, a cursory visit to the Scottish poet, gardener, philosopher and fine artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s new exhibition, opening at London’s Victoria Miro gallery next week, will prove as testing and rigorous as anything else the gallery system has to offer.

 

 

Head of the Dead Marat, (1991), stone, with Neil Talbot, by Ian Hamilton Finlay
Head of the Dead Marat, (1991), stone, with Neil Talbot, by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Finlay, who was born in 1925 and died in 2006, began as a poet, but went on to use words in a number of different media, including masonry. He is best-known for his wonderfully innovative garden, Little Sparta, which he created with his wife Sue Finlay just outside Edinburgh during the latter half of the 20th century. “Little Sparta is not a garden for simply enjoying,” we explain in our contemporary horticultural overview, The Gardeners’ Garden, “it is not just an attractive setting for an eclectic collection of sculptures; the garden is laden with meaning and allegory – symbols to encourage the visitor to read the garden.”

 

The Names of the Twelve (2005/06) by Ian Hamilton Finlay
The Names of the Twelve (2005/06) by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Visitors to Finlay’s posthumous exhibition, entitled 1789 – 1794, should also keep their critical faculties about them. The show’s dates make reference to one of Finlay’s recurring interests: the French revolution. The storming of the Bastille took place in 1789, and 1794’s Thermidorian Reaction brought the revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror to an end. 

Finlay is not an uncritical commentator on French history, and understands how one of the key events within the Enlightenment also led to a barbaric level of bloodshed. The artist is also a classical scholar, and cannot resist seeing legendary resonances in the revolution’s figures. Perhaps most elegantly, he recognises the tension in the social and political movement that brought equality and democracy into the world, and was almost snuffed out by the violent forces that lay at its heart.

 

Four Guillotine Blades (1987) by Ian Hamilton Finlay
Four Guillotine Blades (1987) by Ian Hamilton Finlay

His Four Guillotine Blades are inscribed with words from the great French artists and writers; the classical pillars in The Names of the Twelve, make reference to The Commission of Twelve, a revolutionary committee charged with finding and trying conspirators, yet Finlays’ work interweaves their names with Christ’s apostles – should we view each group on equal terms?

Then there’s The Sound of Running Water, a words-on-stone work, that reads “THE SOUND OF RUNNING WATER HEARD THROUGH THE CHINKS IN A STONE DYKE: REVOLUTION.” It’s a reference to Little Sparta, his garden, and yet the text invites us to think of how the constant drip-drip can lead to a torrent.

 

The Sound of Running Water (1990) by Ian Hamilton Finlay
The Sound of Running Water (1990) by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Visitors to the exhibition, which opens on 10 June running until 31 July, will get more out of the show if they read the notes. Yet a simple reminder of these older artistic concerns is perhaps stimulation enough. Today contemporary artists are more likely to reference the Cold War, the rise of the Internet, or the Regan administration than they are the tumultuous events in France a little over two hundred years ago. Finlay’s posthumous exhibition will perhaps serve to remind us of the violence and conflict that shaped the cultural world we now take for granted; not bad work for a gardener.

To find out more go here; for greater insight into Little Sparta buy a copy of The Gardeners’ Garden; and if you want to understand how the French Revolution shaped the art world of today read The Story of Art.


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