Ian Hamilton Finlay, Aphrodite of the Terror (detail), 1987, plaster, 64 1/8 × 21 1/4 × 18 7/8".

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Aphrodite of the Terror (detail), 1987, plaster, 64 1/8 × 21 1/4 × 18 7/8".

Ian Hamilton Finlay

Victoria Miro Gallery | Mayfair

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Aphrodite of the Terror (detail), 1987, plaster, 64 1/8 × 21 1/4 × 18 7/8".

The French Revolution was a recurrent theme in Ian Hamilton Finlay’s protean career as a poet, Conceptual artist, sculptor, and gardener. Offering an invigorating model for thinking about politics and history, the Revolution runs like a red thread through his work in diverse media—from printed postcards to the gardens of Little Sparta—and was in evidence in the twelve works assembled here. While the title “1789–1794” also invoked the utopian promise of the Revolution’s early years, what captured Finlay’s imagination was clearly its most radical phase, the Terror of 1793–94. Jacobin virtues of radical abstraction, sublimity, and aesthetic purity all appear as objects of fascination in Finlay’s work, as does the paradoxical centrality of nature and the classical past to revolutionary attempts to make the world anew, to rethink time and language from the ground up.

Metaphors drawn from nature pervaded the exhibition. A large stone relief, The Sound of Running Water, 1990, tied the irresistible trickle of water to the regenerative force of social and political change. Republic, 1995, a group of pedestals bearing watering cans and drums, and Apollo and Daphne, 1991, a wall painting that annexes the myth of metamorphosis to that of radical transformation, spoke to similar themes. Finlay’s Revolution is often mediated through the aesthetic choices of the revolutionaries themselves. Two carved-stone wall pieces appropriated Jacques-Louis David’s portraits of revolutionary martyrs, although in Head of the Dead Marat, 1991, David’s famous inscription, A MARAT, DAVID, is reversed. By rerouting the homage from Marat to David, Finlay slyly exposed how important this work was to David’s own self-fashioning. In a similar vein, both 12/1794, 1994, and The Names of the Twelve, 2005–2006—the former a circle of candlesticks on wooden stools, the latter a dinky ceramic model of classical columns—serve a recuperative function. Inscribed with the names of members of the governing Committee of Public Safety, they operate as melancholy, if provisional, portraits. Elsewhere, the lithograph Les Femmes de la Révolution after Anselm Kiefer, 1992, commemorated revolutionary women, from Théroigne de Méricourt to Charlotte Corday, each represented by a different botanical specimen. Playing the misogyny of the Terror against itself and evoking the Republican calendar’s renaming of months and days after plants and animals, this work inserts the names of these women into a narrative from which they have been all too frequently omitted.

Making a case for the reverberations of this great period of upheaval in the present, Finlay embraced it in its complexity and contradiction. Aphrodite of the Terror, 1987, a plaster Venus de Milo, sports the red ribbon allegedly worn around the necks of grieving family members of victims of the Terror. This grisly work of mourning was echoed in the nearby Translation of a Line from Chénier: A Line of Thin Pale Red, 1989, in which a quotation from Stéphane Mallarmé is reconfigured as a tribute to the guillotined poet André Chénier, traced in scarlet neon on the wall. The blade of the guillotine hung heavily over the exhibition, most dramatically in four wall-mounted slate plaques shaped in its unmistakable silhouette. THE GOVERNMENT OF THE REVOLUTION IS THE DESPOTISM OF LIBERTY AGAINST TYRANNY. TERROR IS AN EMANATION OF VIRTUE: These words, by Maximilien Robespierre, are inscribed in red capitals on one of the blades; others carry quotations from Poussin and Diderot. There’s something in Robespierre’s deployment of language to radical ends, his reformulation of words we think we know, that sits well with Finlay’s practice. The statement on the final blade is Finlay’s own: TERROR IS THE PIETY OF THE REVOLUTION. Yet Finlay’s Revolution is neither pious nor nostalgic. Nor is it over. Rather, it appears in his work as critically present and contemporary, an urgent, terrible force of nature.

Richard Taws