In the garden at the entrance to the Van Abbemuseum, sandstone slabs bearing the words DE HUIDIGE ORDE IS DE WANORDE VAN DE TOEKOMST SAINT-JUST (THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE SAINT-JUST) lie half hidden among the plants. This work comprises a number of elements that keep recurring in the oeuvre of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006). Firstly, the use of text. The second is a reference to historic events, in this case the French Revolution by using the name of Saint-Just. The third element is the placing of objects in the open air in a natural environment. Plug in #09 comprises an overview of prints and booklets published by Finlay’s own Wild Hawthorn Press. This overview contains the same three elements, as well as another important theme: the ship.
A lot of Finlay’s work comprises ‘word statues’ and ‘poem objects’, combinations of text and image. The texts may be poetic or informative and consist of one or more words or a few sentences. The words never stand alone, they are always strengthened, weakened or contradicted by their design. In the prints and booklets, typographic elements such as the page layout, letter type and size and the use of colours determine to a large extent how the text comes across. In the case of the objects, the choice of material and where they are placed are vital.
Finlay makes frequent references to historic events such as the French Revolution or the Second World War. What fascinates him about these events is the merger of idealism and violence as two sides of the
same coin. Finlay made a coin with the word ‘virtue’ on one side and a depiction of two Greek pillars connected by a base and an architrave. The other side bears the word ‘terror’ and a picture of a guillotine. The pictures look similar but symbolise each other’s opposite. With pillars, temples and text chiselled in stone, Finlay refers to ancient culture, which he considers to be the embodiment of the highest values and ideals. The French Revolution, which started as an idealistic struggle, ended up as a reign of terror when Robespierre seized power. Saint-Just was a prominent Jacobean ideologist who tried to find a practical solution to various social issues. He was a staunch supporter of Robespierre, and they ultimately died together under the guillotine. Finlay makes clear references to the Second World War in his pictures of aircraft carriers, bombers, camouflage patterns and Nazi insignia. His work is sometimes viewed with suspicion, but Finlay does not extol the merits of war with his work. Instead, his intention was to warn of the danger hidden in ideologies.
Many of Finlay’s prints depict ships or contain references to them in words such as “sea” or “sail”. Finlay spent his early childhood in the Bahamas, where his father earned his keep by smuggling alcohol on the high seas. Finlay was familiar with both the positive and the negative sides of shipping from a very early age. On the one hand, the sea is a source of income, particlarly fishing, and sailing gives a feeling of being at one with nature. On the other hand, nature is a continuous danger, particularly to sailing ships. Finlay’s prints usually depict the peaceful side of sailing and fishing. The boats are portrayed in calm water, on land or without surroundings. And texts like ‘Evening will come they will sew the blue sail’ invoke a peaceful atmosphere. Another of his boat themes is warships. They feature in prints or are laid out in ‘Little Sparta’, Finlay’s garden. Plastic toy models or small-scale replicas in metal or stone serve as water or feed trays for the birds. These objects also juxtapose concepts such as peace, devotion and concern for nature with aggression.
At the age of six, Finlay moved to a boarding school
in Glasgow. With the exception of brief interlude, he lived in Scotland for the rest of his life. As an artist, he was largely self-taught. He later moved and settled just outside Edinburgh, where he spent some time working as a shepherd. In 1966, he started laying out a ‘philosophical garden’ at Stonypath, about 40 km to the south-west of Edinburgh, which he was later to call ‘Little Sparta’. In addition to plants and ponds, the garden contains objects conceived by Finlay, many of which bear a piece of text. All the elements in the garden have a specific, often symbolic significance within the whole. The objects are sometimes prominent, sometimes unobtrusive. They vary from the bird trays mentioned above to a temple to Apollo, from plastic tortoise shells bearing the word ‘Pantzer’ to the English-language version of the work that lies in front of the Van Abbemuseum, from semi-overgrown object poems to a shiny portrait of Saint-Just. At ‘Little Sparta’, all of Finlay’s themes come together. They may seem contradictory, but Finlay reveals the paradox in both nature and civilised humanity. Nature is not only peaceful and good, it can also be ruthless. And humanity overshoots its idealism when doctrines are enforced with a heavy hand. Terror and virtue are both equally natural. At ‘Little Sparta’, these paradoxes are expressed in poetic fashion. Finlay saw his garden as a sanctuary, a place for reflection. But at the same time, that reflection makes it an attack on the outside world.