Monday, 8 July 2013

Artist Uncovered: Ian Hamilton Finlay

Martine F Pugh searches for the man behind the genius

Ian Hamilton Finlay was a philosopher, a poet, an ‘avant-gardener’, a sculptor and a revolutionary in thoughts and temperament. How should I uncover arguably the greatest Scottish artist of the twentieth century?  Then I came across an insightful essay by his son Alec where I learnt that Finlay suffered from agoraphobia all his adult life. His affliction revealed to me the man behind the genius and somehow it all began to make sense.

A, E, I, O, Blue, 1992 with Julie Farthing
silkscreen, 45.8 x 152.0 cm

Finlay dismissed his ‘nervous anxiety’ as “unpleasant, but no more interesting, really, than toothache” but his son’s tribute shows what profound effect his fear of busy urban streets had on his life and work and how it inspired him to create  gardens and organise work settings where he could feel safe in natural but controlled rural environments. 

Little Sparta, Finlay’s best known garden and artwork, is situated in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh. Originally called Stonypath, it was an untamed moorland with only one tree in 1966 when Finlay and his wife Sue moved in. With Sue’s planting and Finlay’s planning, it evolved slowly, money was scarce,  into the series of verdant gardens we can visit today that are filled with neo-classical references to Ancient Greece, Finlay’s spiritual and cultural home, and to the French Revolution whose theorists he greatly admired. 

Citron Bleu, 1994, with Gary Hincks 
silkscreen, 45.3 x 57.7 cm

Art historian Bill Hare defines Little Sparta as “a masterly twentieth-century reworking of the Enlightenment Landscape Garden where Apollonian power of reason seeks to control and order through art the ever-threatening chaos of unruly nature.” 

What is true of the great eighteenth-century landscape tradition is also true of Finlay’s endeavour to control his own emotions by immersing himself in art and in the physicality of gardening.

Column Drum to Drum, 1991, with Gary Hincks 
silkscreen, 23.8 x 57.0 cm

But Apollo carried a bow as well as a lyre and when his Arcadian haven came under bureaucratic attacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Finlay channelled his frustration and anger into artistic ‘wars’ through sculptures, poems and prints. Stonypath then was renamed ‘Little Sparta’, an allusion to the Spartan wars of Antiquity against Athens and to Edinburgh’s nickname of ‘Athens of the North’.

His movements may have been restricted but Finlay was nonetheless well informed as he corresponded with writers and poets in Britain and around the world. He also surrounded himself with friends and collaborators who were curators, publishers, printmakers, poets, sculptors and stone carvers. With his garden, they provided him with the supportive environment his creativity needed. His genius was to know how to use their particular vision to fulfil and expand his own.

Seams, 1969 
silkscreen, 43.5 x 56.3 cm

Finlay's pioneering written work took many forms that defied syntax and convention: concrete poetry or poem objects  that you can touch, one line poems, poem drawings, sound poems, embroidered texts, texts shaped in neon, small press publications such as POTH (Poor . Old . Tired . Horse) to name a few.

Art in Healthcare is fortunate to have six prints that span four decades. Together they showcase his characteristic wit and visual power and speak for themselves. Two of them may need further explaining. With ‘Citron Blue’ Finlay alluded to the shape of Orkney boats which reminded him of lemons with their protrusions fore and aft and to a poem by Goethe whom Finlay greatly admired. As for ‘Column Drum to Drum’ it refers to the building process of classical columns that involved stacking up drum-shaped sections. 

Sackcloth, 1992, with Pip Hall
silkscreen, 42.0 x 42.3 cm

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s lifelong struggle against agoraphobia had an extraordinary conclusion. He suffered a stroke near the end of his life which reversed his phobia and allowed him to do some travelling once more. 

Since Finlay’s death in 2006, Little Sparta has been looked after by his trust. The future seemed uncertain because of the high maintenance costs but it was announced in June this year that a deal has been signed with Edinburgh University (which now includes Edinburgh College of Art) that will allow scholars to use the house as a study centre. A new beginning unfolds.

Martine Foltier Pugh is a freelance writer and visual artist based in Edinburgh

With thanks to

Bill Hare, art historian and Chair of Art in Healthcare Board of Trustees

The Wild Hawthorn Press for their information on the prints in the AiH collection.

‘Ian Hamilton Finlay – Selections’ edited and with an Introduction by Alec Finlay, University of California Press, 2012.

Little Sparta trust:

The exhibition ‘Ian Hamilton Finlay. Poet. Artist. Revolutionary’ is currently running at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow until March 1 2014.

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