A display of prints and multiples by the contemporary Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) will go on display at Pallant House Gallery this autumn. The artist, best known for his celebrated garden at Little Sparta near Edinburgh, created work which engaged with themes drawn from classical writers such as Virgil and connects the display with the Gallery’s major autumn exhibition, The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950.
Finlay’s practice was unusual in that it encompassed a variety of different genres and media. He expressed poetry, philosophy, history, gardening and landscape design in material forms such as cards, books, prints, stone inscriptions, wood sculptures and even room installations and garden environments. His famous work at Little Sparta, referencing classical poetry and philosophy through garden sculptures and carvings, explores the contrast between Nature and Culture, wild gardens and the act of gardening.
Originating from his poetic background, Finlay’s creative relationship with language is the element that ties all his works together. Finlay’s concern with the power of language is seen in the words and phrases, playfully invented or borrowed, that are inscribed onto real objects in his work. The sometimes enigmatic combination of these words and objects act as suggestive and, at times, witty metaphors that direct the viewer’s thinking to wider political themes and comments on society.
The exhibition at Pallant House Gallery includes Finlay’s important sculptural installation Four Blades (1987), four pieces of slate carved to look like guillotine blades inscribed with quotes from notable figures of the French Revolution and himself, revealing Finlay’s fascination with the aesthetics, philosophy and politics of neoclassical thought. Using classical images as models for portraying modern society, Finlay’s pieces comment on the possibilities of revolution, freedom and equality. He even envisages his recurrent garden theme as a levelling method for society and equates the gardener with Death, a comment on how Death eventually cuts short everyone’s life. A group of his prints shown in this exhibition were made in collaboration with other artists and published by the Wild Hawthorn Press, an organisation that Finlay founded in 1964 with Jessie McGuffie Sheeler. Many of the works in the exhibition are on loan from private collections and one is from Pallant House Gallery’s Golder-Thompson Gift, a continually growing collection of contemporary prints being developed for the Gallery with the support of Mark Golder and Brian Thompson.
The juxtaposition between the antique and the modern is a theme carried throughout the Gallery’s autumn exhibition programme, especially in the major exhibition The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, which explores how Modern British artists drew on classical myth and ideals in a ‘return to order’ following the First World War. Similarly, an ambitious installation by the Argentinian-born artist Pablo Bronstein provides the latest contemporary installation in the Gallery’s 18th century townhouse. Bronstein has created a series of panoramic wallpapers featuring heavily decorated, historic architectural landscapes. Finally, an exhibition of exquisite classical figure drawings and mural studies by the German émigré artist, Hans Feibusch draws from the substantial archive gifted to Pallant House Gallery from Feibusch’s London studio. Many of these remarkable drawings have never previously been exhibited.
Ian Hamilton Finlay: Neoclassicism and Revolution will take place from 22 October until 19 February 2017 and will be exhibited in Room 17. On Thursday 9 February 2017 there will be a talk on ‘Ian Hamilton Finlay and Little Sparta’ by Prof. Stephen Bann.