One of the most important modern artworks in Scotland lies embedded in a windswept hillside some twenty miles south-west of Edinburgh. It is called Little Sparta, the remarkable garden created by Ian Hamilton Finlay on the edge of the Pentland Hills. Poet, gardener and moralist, Finlay is now recognised as one of the most influential of the post-war generation of British artists. Little Sparta is his Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art and by far the best place to experience his work and ideas.
It is not easy to do justice to the range and depth of Finlay’s achievement in a museum setting, but the National Galleries have gradually built up an impressive holding of his work. This comprises a large selection of prints, several pieces in three dimensions and, in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, a major installation consisting of a full-size sailing dinghy with an accompanying poem (fig.16). Outside the Galleries, it is a piece by Finlay that welcomes visitors as they approach the building of Modern Two: in 2001 he selected the site for six separate inscriptions cast in bronze which are set into a wall in the grounds of the Gallery.
Finlay first came to prominence in the 1960s as an exponent of concrete poetry: poems in which meaning is conveyed through shape, rhythm and sound rather than syntax or narrative. In 1961 he co-founded Wild Hawthorn Press which has published much of his printed work. There followed a period of prolific production with Finlay working as editor, publisher, creator and poet and conducting extensive correspondence with his contacts across the world. Collaboration was central to his practice, and his ideas were realised by a changing team of gifted artists and craftsmen. Whether they are drawn, printed, constructed or sculpted, his pieces are generally simple in form but rich in references and allusion. His words and images are characterised by brevity and wit but the scope of his enquiry is astonishingly broad, linking subjects ancient and modern from classical philosophy through to present-day warfare.
The classical idea of Arcadia as an unspoilt, natural paradise – lost, threatened or longed for – is a recurring theme in Finlay’s work from the 1970s onwards. This carving, executed by his collaborator John Andrew, is one of several works based on a famous painting by Poussin entitled Et in Arcadia ego, about 1638 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Finlay was inspired by a celebrated essay of 1936 by the German art historian Erwin Panofsky that explores ambiguities of meaning in Poussin’s picture. The original painting depicts an idealised landscape in which a group of shepherds is shown examining an austere tomb which bears the inscription Et in Arcadia ego. This is usually translated to mean ‘Even in Arcadia there am I’, a reminder that death is present even in paradise. In Finlay’s version the figures are removed and the tomb has taken on the brutal form of a modern tank. The typically challenging combination of word and image is both powerful and enigmatic, evoking the destructive forces that Finlay saw in nature and civilisation. Rejecting nostalgia, he uses the ancient form of a sculpted relief to present a modern meditation on the fragile boundaries that divide order and chaos, creativity and destruction.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.