Ian Hamilton Finlay at Tate Britain

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Tate Britain is a bit disorganised at the moment as the Tate completes a programme of building works and prepares for the unveiling of a major rehang in May. But the good news is that during this period they are taking the opportunity to hang some small interesting shows which might not otherwise get space.

I went today to see an exhibition of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work which is one of the most thought provoking and indeed provocative exhibitions I have seen for a long time. I would urge anybody who has the chance to get to Millbank before the exhibition closes on 17 February to do so.

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was born in Bermuda but made his home in Scotland. He was seriously under-appreciated and under-valued in his lifetime, and probably even now. But he could reasonably lay claim to being the most original thinker artist to emerge in Scotland in the C20. He first developed his reputation as a concrete poet – a poet for whom the form and layout of the words was an integral to what he was communicating as the words themselves. And throughout his life he remained concerned with words and their juxtaposition with images to present contradictions, stimulate thought and create beauty. As his work developed he became increasingly interested in classical notion of an Arcadian rural idyll, inserting into that Arcadian view military and revolutionary images and texts which visually reinforced the classically view whilst intellectually seeming to overthrow it. This thinking took its most developed form in the garden he developed at Little Sparta in the Borders of Scotland where he lived and work and which is now open for visitors during the summer.

The exhibition at the Tate shows only a small fraction of his work drawn from the Tate’s own permanent collection but there is plenty to introduce Hamilton Finlay and if it serves as a springboard to a wider appreciation of his work and a much more extensive exhibition in the years ahead it will have achieved a great thing.

The small exhibition is shown entirely in the Duveen Galleries at the Tate. These are the large neo-classical sculpture galleries which form the centre of Tate Britain. They are large spaces which might easily overwhelm a small show of often small pieces but for the most part the neo-classical space actually serves to reinforce Hamilton Finlay’s work with its own neo-classical presentation. It is only the works on paper, presented in two large perspex boxes which might really benefit from being shown in more intimate surroundings.

One gallery is entirely filled with a single work, illustrated at the top of this post. It is series of seemingly rescued classical remains hung high on the wall and bearing the inscription “The world has been empty since the Romans”. This seeming recreation of a classical ruin is actually inscribed with the words of Saint Just, the prime mover of the Grand Terror of the French Revolution. Saint Just idealised the Greek and Roman republics as promoting public virtue and liberty and explained how terror could be fully justified in the promotion of virtue and liberty. Saint Just was the advance guard spokesman of totalitarian terror and the presentation of his words in a comfortable classical form is deeply provocative.

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The provocation continues in the next gallery which presents The Wartime Garden. Set round the walls of the gallery are a series of stone tablets, atop classical columns. Each tablet presents a the contradiction between a word which represents an aspect of the Arcadian idyll and a picture which is representative of destructive war. The tablets are beautiful objects in themselves and each reflects on peace and war; a tough message in soft packaging.

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The other long-standing interest of Hamilton Finlay was ships and the sea. The works on paper include a number of his concrete poems based on the names of fishing boats he had seen. And the smaller central gallery also includes a number of larger works which reflect that same theme and represent a gentle unwind from the challenges of the war machine and revolutionary terror. They convey in the words of critic Yves Abrioux, ‘the metaphorical implication that the boats enact a pastoral idyll on the high seas’.

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