PRINT November 1991



in blue

Blue bark
and blue leaf

A leaf
A barque
A blue leaf
A barque in leaf-blue

A LOOK AT THE WORK of Ian Hamilton Finlay could begin in any number of places: in the gallery; with the innumerable booklets, cards, and posters published by the Wild Hawthorn Press; in the garden, or, more strictly, gardens, at Stonypath, his home near Edinburgh; with the publicly sited works; with the concrete poetry of the ’60s, or the earlier narrative writings. The difficulty in making a choice is that themes recur throughout this body of work. Motifs that once find expression in one medium resurface, transformed, in another; certain subject matter permeates whole areas of his endeavor, and there is a persistent return to older material in order to carry it further forward. The work Finlay exhibited at the “Metropolis” exhibition this summer in Berlin is a case in point, being the realization of the above poem, which was written nearly 30 years ago. Cythera, 1991, took the form of a substantial pergola that ran from one side to the other of the Martin-Gropius-Bau’s central atrium. Each column of its parallel colonnades carried one term of the poem written in neon, German on the right and English on the left.

An earlier plan to “realize” Cythera, a drawing from 1965, calls for each line of the poem to appear on alternate sides of a serpentine path in a garden. The central portion of the poem,“ /blue bark / and blue leaf /,” was to be housed in a square glass pavilion, beyond which the path would curve round to pass, after the poem’s final period, across a “wee lake” by means of stepping stones. In both early plan and final form, the juxtaposition of land and water, and the sense of the work as the record of a journey, a passage through the poem and across space, are important. Cythera, today known as Cerigo, is the Greek island off the Peloponnesian coast once sacred to Aphrodite, and the work brings to mind one of Finlay’s “Heroic Emblems,” 1977, which combines the image of an aircraft carrier with a fragment from Empedocles: “The divided meadows of Aphrodite.” The line can be taken as a straightforward reference to the female genitalia, but it also, as here, may refer to the sea itself, out of which Venus rose. Cleft by the ship’s bow, the waters remain divided by its wake.

The sea has been a central presence in Finlay’s work. In the ’60s, when “Cythera” was written, it was represented by aspects of the Scottish fishing boat—its form, name, registration number, function, and so on. Subsequently, as the destructive potential at the heart of things became more directly acknowledged in his work, the fishing craft gave way to the warship. From among the range of modern warships, the aircraft carrier emerged as a symbol of the four elements: air, represented by the planes that fly from it; earth, the deck upon which they land; fire, their weaponry; and water, the element in which the boat travels. Cythera’s pergola sits on a linoleum mat consisting of a boat-shaped blue outline set in green. The fluid relationship in the poem between word and image, word and object, persists.

Over the mat’s green-and-blue pattern is a rectilinear grid of red lines set at 45 degrees to the orientation of the work. Finlay has used this idea before, transposing Piet Mondrian’s neoplasticist equilibrium between horizontal/earth and vertical/human into a “neo-Presocratic” one between horizontal/sea and vertical/earth: “The garden pool teaches what the Presocratics knew, that land wishes to be water, and water, land.”1 Cythera blurs the distinctions between land, sea, and sky both visually, through the pervasiveness of the color blue, and aurally, by using the homophonic pair bark/barque. The important thing here is that the interchange is understood to be in some sense willed.

Finlay perceives an equivalent understanding of the “directedness” of natural forces in the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, “the philosopher of flux,” best known perhaps for his oft-quoted words, “Everything flows,” or more colloquially, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” For Finlay, though, Heraclitus is the philosopher of “form,” an interpretation justifiable through reference to his fragments on fire. Heraclitus did not see fire as an originative substance (as, for example, water was for Thales or air was for Anaximenes), but as the form of matter—the divine ether, the place of souls—which exerted control: “Thunderbolt steers all things.”2

There is something judgmental, even retributive, in this conception of fire. It is not merely destructive, but is “an ever living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.”3 There is, to lift descriptive terms from the French Revolution, another historical period important to Finlay, a balancing of Terror with Virtue. This equilibrium is expressed by Heraclitus in his image of the countervailing tensions of string and frame in the bow or lyre, the twin attributes of Apollo. Finlay extends this image into another dimension by identifying not only the stresses within the structure of the bow or the lyre, but also the opposition (and hence, in Heraclitean terms, the identity) between them. Lyre, 1977, an Oerlikon, or antiaircraft cannon, has inscribed on its base a quote from Edward Hussey’s book on the pre-Socratics. On seeing the work, Hussey wrote to Finlay: “You seem to have incorporated into your Lyre a point which occurred to me after the book was written: that an inner connection linking bow and lyre is given by the fact that both are instruments of the oracular god Apollo, who as ‘far-shooting’ archer sends out messages of death, as lyre-player messages of music.”

In Cythera, a second homophonic pair, air/aire, marks the passage from wind to music. The text imposes form upon an inchoate element, and although the poem itself was written before Finlay embarked upon his study of the pre-Socratics, the form in which it has been realized allows his philosophical ideas to resonate within its structure, thereby bringing out the latent power of its poetic images. The imagery and rhythms of the poem build up a picture somewhat in the way that the repetitions and shifts work in Cubist painting. Stephen Bann has noted that Finlay’s concrete poetry stood at the end of a tradition, not at the beginning of something new.4 It was a return to the fragmentation of earlier Modernist movements—Apollinaire’s calligrammes, Futurist parole in libertà, Dadaist sound poetry, and so on—an attempt to find some form of resolution to that fragmentation. In poems such as “Sea-Poppy I,” 1966, for example, Finlay groups a number of registration marks taken from Scottish fishing boats. These consist of a number prefixed by one or two letters denoting the vessel’s port of origin. As units of found material that, though alphanumeric, are linguistically meaningless, they recall Dada poetry, particularly that of Kurt Schwitters. “Sea-Poppy I,” though, is not neo-Dada; the tags are arranged as a flower head and the poem works through analogy, the flower being equivalent to the boats on the sea. “An English Colonel Explains an Orkney Boat,” verse 2 of “Orkney Lyrics,” an early, preconcrete poem, draws a parallel between the boat’s hull and a lemon: “You see, it has a point at both/Ends, sir, somewhat/As lemons. . . .” Here, and in the many subsequent works that employ this identity (and, indeed, in many that don’t), the implicit reference is to Goethe’s evocation of the warm South: “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?” (Do you know the country where the lemon trees bloom?).5 The boat’s form brings the Mediterranean into play, and the kind of names it is given—Shepherd Lad, Zephyr—increase the identification, both with the land and with the topos of mythology. Further than this, though, the metaphoric invocation of that longing for the South, which is a longing for certainty, completion, the revelation of a beginning, is figured through another, more immediate yearning: Finlay does not leave his garden.

The pillars of Cythera’s pergola appear to be made of polished stone, but are, in fact, concrete with a polished-granite finish. They support a rectilinear, gridded structure that, similarly, looks like metal but is actually stained wood. Both in its design, which is somewhat reminiscent of the architecture of Michael Graves, and in the artificiality of its materials, it seems a passably authoritative post-Modern composition. It is, though, just that: a composition, an invention. The term “invention” has a particular meaning in classical rhetoric. It denotes not the ability to make things up, but a talent for selecting and bringing things together in order to construct a convincing argument. The pergola is such an invention, a combination of elements that places the work in relation to post-Modernism. The notion of placement is lifted from gardening: “It is the case with gardens as with societies: some things require to be fixed so that others may be placed.”6

A card published by Finlay in 1981 clarifies this relationship. It is a white card edged in black, like a funeral announcement, on which are printed two quotes. The first is Herbert Read quoted by that proselytizer of architectural post-Modernism, Charles Jencks: “In the back of every dying civilisation sticks a bloody Doric column.” Countering this is Claude Chimérique, quoted by Finlay: “In the foreground of every revolution, invisible, it seems, to the academics, stands a perfect classical column.” The choice is between decadence and virtue, between dressing mediocrity and pusillanimous behavior in the cloak of moral authority, and the more difficult option of adherence to principles: “If you want to avoid the worst of the mud, walk in the ruts.”7

As well as adopting a post-Modernist guise, the structure of Cythera also echoes a work Finlay made in Glasgow last year. This used the pillars of a railway bridge across the River Clyde. The bridge is long disused, and the iron superstructure has been dismantled, leaving pairs of columns standing in midstream. Into the heavily rusticated surface of two of these, Finlay cut a line from Plato in Greek and English: “All greatness stands firm in the storm.” Cythera, then, is like the bridge rehabilitated, an effort at reconnecting with history. In a similar manner, Finlay sees his garden as an attack rather than a retreat, a central element in his campaign for “neo-classical rearmament.” There is, in this, no simple wish that one were of another time, no nostalgic longing for a past that, because it is an ideal, never existed anyway. The problem, much more fundamentally, is one of being. This is an ontological problem, but one that has been internalized through the mythology of cultural origin. Finlay’s work addresses the Hellenic root of this myth, its development in pre-Socratic thought out of cosmology into philosophy, and various of its subsequent historical reformulations—in the paintings of Poussin and Claude, the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin, Heinrich Heine, and, through him, Walter Pater, and in aspects of Modernism.

Nietzsche saw in the writings of Hölderlin the congruence of two traits that he himself shared: an absorption in ancient Greece, together with a critical attitude toward his own society. In a letter of 1861 he wrote that “nowhere has the longing for Greece been revealed in purer tones,” talking also of the “bitter truths” of their cultural impoverishment that Hölderlin revealed to his contemporaries. What differentiates Nietzsche from Hölderlin and earlier German philhellenes, however, is his pre-Socratic focus. M. S. Silk and J. P. Stern, in their study of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, note that “for Nietzsche the great age is the age of religious depth (although he generally eschews the word).”8 One might suppose, then, an affinity between Nietzsche and Finlay. They share an interest in the pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, and exhibit a distaste for what passes as moral behavior among their contemporaries. However, even though in the narrow sense Finlay is not religious either, he abhors impiety of any kind and has little time for Nietzsche, finding him essentially vulgar. Finlay’s art is notable for its rectitude, a quality that makes today’s liberal conscience, which tends to value a quiet life above principle, uneasy.

Cythera, then, stands in critical relation to the cynicism of contemporary society. Such placement as a method of producing meaning is a tactic Finlay has often used. It operated, for example, in his meditations on Modernism in the ’60s—produced as a series of “homages” to the formal purity of Juan Gris’ Cubism and to the spiritual depth of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist painting—and in the ’70s in the adoption of neon as a link with Minimalism and as a continuation of the interest in fauve color previously manifested in the variety of inks used to print his poems. A further complexity lies in the recognition that the invocation of post-Modernism as a style of surface connects with Finlay’s abiding interest in camouflage.

What camouflage hides is the savage unreasonableness of nature, and the presence in Finlay’s work of the imagery of war—guns, ships, tanks—is a reminder of this. The tank and its sconce are a modern incarnation of the classical myth of Arcadia. That misfortune is present even at the heart of the pastoral idyll has been acknowledged at least since Virgil’s first eclogue. But Finlay’s insistence that misfortune cannot and should not be ignored runs counter to a prevailing cultural mood that manifests itself in the wish that, for example, we accept glib, mealymouthed phrases like “levels of attrition” and “collateral damage” as adequate substitutes for “killing people”: “The two excuses of the liberal: It is trivial and not worth worrying about. It is too unpleasant and ought to be ignored.”9

The French Revolution, subject of much work during the ’80s, is another instance of an attempted return to the ideal represented by Virgil’s powerful construct. Revolution was an effort, as Finlay might say, to “make a home” in the world. For him, the rhetoric of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Georges Couthon, the triumvirate of the Committee of Public Safety, was exemplary both of the pastoral language in which the Revolution’s aims were couched and of the Terror through which those aims were prosecuted.

In the early ’80s, prior to Finlay’s prolonged study of the French Revolution, a work like The Third Reich Revisited saw Nazism as symbolic of violent and chaotic nature irrupting into civilization, breaking it apart. It offered a series of proposals for retrieving and reorienting the neoclassical monuments to this decadent ideology, and comprised a number of drawings with commentaries, each of which documented an alteration to a piece of Nazi architecture (or to the offices of the Scottish Arts Council, with which Finlay was in dispute at the time). Mixing fact with invention they describe, among other things, the display by the Arbeitsdienst of a concrete poem, “Little Fields Long (for) Horizons,” in the ruined Zeppelinfeld, rather in the placard-wielding manner now reserved for such occasions as the opening of the Olympic Games; the erection of a Hitler column in Berlin that, instead of being cylindrical like its Roman predecessors, is a square-section concrete tower, upon which is inscribed a concrete poem made up of sets of initials denoting various German military groups and items of military equipment; and the redemption of Paul Ludwig Troost’s Ehrentempel, a memorial to National Socialist party members killed in a 1923 putsch, through the inscription of Finlay’s “First Suprematist Standing Poem” around its interior frieze.

In a commentary on his Ehrentempel drawing, Finlay remarks, “In 1947, at the end of the War, the Americans decided to blow up these examples of heroic classicism. But an alternative was proposed: the interior frieze, framing the ‘open sky,’ was used for a deNazifying inscription (this was the period of the DeNazification Tribunals). A high-principled but barbaric vandalism was avoided by retaining the architecture while altering the sense.” The problem for some has been that in looking at the culture of the French Revolution or of Nazi Germany, Finlay seems to be soft on the profound injustices of the systems under and through which that culture was created. For Finlay himself, as this extract shows, the question turns more on the extent to which such behavior is “redeemable” at all. Contemporary culture tends to reinforce the belief that things can be “made better” by turning our backs on them—destroying a Troost building, airbrushing Trotsky out of a photograph, condemning unreservedly at every possible opportunity. Yet the amelioration afforded by such actions is, at best, provisional, is always illusory, and ignores the profound degree to which our own humanity is implicated in all considerations of the economy and exercise of power.

In addressing this aspect of his work, Yves Abrioux considers Finlay’s booklet The Anaximander Fragment. This small publication contains 11 translations of the one extant fragment of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander, interleaved with alternating black and white close-ups and long views of a landscape containing architectural fragments. Thus Martin Heidegger: “But that from which things arise also gives rise to their passing away, according to what is necessary; for things render justice and pay penalty to one another for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.” But what Heidegger and most others render as “injustice” one translator gives as “offense” and another as “recklessness.” Abrioux asks: “On what grounds does one come down on the side of one translation or another? Are we moderns not altogether too embarrassed by the notion of power to be able properly to face up to the problem? Finlay’s systematic fore-grounding of the cultural dimension of the French Revolution or the Third Reich constitutes a hyperbolical statement of this predicament.”10

Nazism has appeared in this role in a number of works, most notoriously in Osso, 1987, marble fragments inscribed with the Italian word for bone in which the middle two letters are rendered as the double lightning flash of the SS. The inclusion of the work in a one-person show at ARC in Paris in 1987 led to a concerted campaign of vilification in the French art press, fueled, it seemed, by the crass belief that a reference to Nazism necessarily implies sympathy with it. As a consequence a government commission to design a garden in celebration of the bicentenary of the Revolution was rescinded. The dispute over Osso is a fine example of that “salutary fear” of which Theodor Adorno speaks, instilled “whenever nature is invoked in order to throw light on a man-made world which thinks it does not need to be illuminated.”11

Conflict of this kind is not something Finlay seeks, although it is something that often finds him. In 1988, as part of his fight against the French art world, Finlay issued a series of small folded cards entitled “The Desmoulins Connection.” Camille Desmoulins, initially a fervent revolutionary, subsequently wavered and was guillotined along with Danton. Heine, commenting on Horace Vernet’s painting of Desmoulins holding a leaf in one hand and a pistol in the other, likens him not to Orpheus but to Eurydice, “when following the music of her lover’s lyre she glanced back at the horror of the underworld: . . . voices of the Gironde called to you out of the Kingdom of Shadows and you glanced fearfully round.”12 Each card carries a short, aphoristic statement and an impress acknowledging it to have been issued by the “Committee of Public Safety” based at “Little Sparta.” One of the cards reads: “Liberal democracy dislikes the association of Virtue and Terror. It finds Virtue offensive.”

Finlay’s croft was restyled Little Sparta following a dispute with his regional council over property taxes. The law states that religious buildings shall be exempt from such charges, but Finlay’s designation of one of his buildings as a temple—a gesture dictated by his belief that reverence is a quality sorely lacking in contemporary culture—was not seen as sufficient to qualify it for such an exemption. Ultimately the bailiffs gained entry to the building and removed from it works, proceeds from the sale of which they felt would cover the outstanding bill. That the works are worth much more than that, and that some were not Finlay’s to relinquish, are not matters that have subsequently concerned them.

Beyond the specific focus of this confrontation, the more general point at issue concerns language. There is a disjunction between the word—the legislated stipulation that a religious building shall be exempt from charge—and its interpretation – is this, or is this not a temple? The issue of what words mean, constantly readdressed in Finlay’s punning use of language, is central to the question of being. Homage to Malevich, from 1963, for example, “reproduces” Malevich’s black square as a block of text formed from the repeated words “black” and “block.” However, there has been a slippage, and the initial “b” has been transposed to the end of each line so that the left-hand column oscillates between absence and affirmation, reading “lack lock lack lock,” etc. Although it was still some years before Finlay incorporated imagery into his work, the visual element adds a further layer of doubt to Homage to Malevich. The block of text surrounded by the page sets up a figure/ground relationship that adds to the conflict between the physical clarity of the type and the absence of any similarly straightforward message. The certainties of the printed text are confounded by linguistic and semantic ambiguity. Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests in the Tractatus that it is not the “how” of the world that is mystical, but “that it exists.”13 This is close, too, to Heidegger’s definition of “nothing,” not as that which stands outside Being, but that which is effaced by Being itself: “It is in the Being of what is that the nihilation of Nothing occurs.”14 And there is dread in the recognition of this. Et in Arcadia ego.

Michael Archer is a critic who lives in London.



1. Ian Hamilton Finlay, More Detached Sentences on Gardening in the Manner of Shenstone, The P. N. Review no. 42, 1984, pp. 18–20.
2. Heraclitus, fragment 64, G. S. Kirk et al., eds., Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1983, pp. 197–98.
3. Ibid., fragment 30.
4. Stephen Bann, Ian Hamilton Finlay, exhibition catalogue, London: Serpentine Gallery and the Arts Council of Great Britain, 1977, p. 10.
5. Finlay mentions the phrase in a draft commentary on his 1984 emblem For the temples of the Greeks our homesickness lasts forever. See Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer, Edinburgh: Reaktion Books, 1985, pp. 155–57.
6. Finlay, More Detached Sentences on Gardening, pp. 18–20.
7. This is one of Finlay’s 5 Proverbs for Jacobins, a collaboration with Kathleen Lindsley, Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorn Press, 1989.
8. M. S. Silk and J. P. Stern, Nietzsche on Tragedy, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1981, pp. 22 and 155.
9. Finlay, The Desmoulins Connection, Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorn Press, 1988.
10. Abrioux, pp. 217–18.
11. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 97.
12. Heinrich Heine, “The Salon,” 1831, in Heine in Art and Letters, trans. Elizabeth Sharp, London: Walter Scott, n.d.
13. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 6.44, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974, p. 73.
14. Martin Heidegger, quoted in Michael Murray, ed., Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978, p. 82. See also Murray’s commentary on Wittgenstein’s essay on Heidegger in ibid., p. 80.

A one-person exhibition of the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay will be on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, until 17 November 1991.