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A series of Ian Hamilton Finlay exhibitions
July 2012–July 2013
Sundays by appointment, 1–6pm
(email Library for an appointment)
“What are exhibitions for?” It’s a very childlike question, isn’t it. What are animals for? What is the potato for? We’re all card-carrying functionalists. Nevertheless, the question has battery life, if not for obtaining its answer, then for segregating our expectations about the form. On February 9th with the opening of
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the fourth in a series of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) exhibitions, we expect the form to hold our necks back against the blade of resolution.
Over the next year, a number of scholars, curators, and long term appreciators* will each go into Reed College’s Ian Hamilton Finlay collection and come out with a different account. Different minds, different experiences, and all we ask of any is its own validity. As for specifics, we will happily yield to the impartial: the hagiographic, the gushy, the academic, the minor, the un-edified, etc.
Why the elliptical? Finlay is a great artist. But many artists are called “great.” The word is industrially farmed. In his case it meant greatly prolific, greatly contested, greatly provoked and greatly provoking. Finlay depends on who weighs the scales and how those scales are weighted. Something like that, sure. He was a stamina merchant. He was a concrete poet, and then he wasn’t. He was a printmaker, a sculptor, a gardener, and above all, he was a publisher, founding The Wild Hawthorn Press in 1961. “Difficult” is the word that people usually stick to him. Maybe the incline comes from the work’s quiet amplitude, or the way it says both less than you think it ought to and then suddenly more than you think you could ever be responsible for. No doubt, the work can impose linguistic and aesthetic distance, but if it does, it never seeks to do less than bring a particular person as close as possible. Over the course of the Press’s run, Finlay produced epic volubility in intimate ways; and handing it all over in one big go, just cold, feels clumsy. There are some artist’s whose work can be displayed in a smooth fashion, and then there are artists who bay in the box. Quantity limps his work, but if you get it gradually, well spaced, larded with silence, then the work is overpowering. You gotta wait, you know, and wait, and wait, and wait, and we just don’t do that sort of thing much—the world turns—who has time to wait between two exhibitions for just a little shade of aesthetic revelation?
We’re lucky. With some six hundred printed works and artist books, Reed College’s Ian Hamilton Finlay collection begins with the first Wild Hawthorn Press edition, Canal Series 3 (1964), and ends with work from the tail of his life. The collection was acquired in 2006 through the efforts of Gerri Ondrizek and Gay Walker, without whose appreciation* this work would be out of reach.
Stephen Scobie was born in Carnoustie, Scotland. He relocated to Canada in 1965 and earned a PhD from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver after which he taught at the University of Alberta and at the University of Victoria. He is a critic and scholar who carried out a furtive correspondence with Ian Hamilton Finlay.
*As much as the word appreciate is typically taken to mean to esteem, to find worth or excellence in, its foremost meaning, says the O.E.D., is to form an estimate of worth or quality, and, in so doing, to feel the full force of the thing before us. Such appreciation then demands scrutiny, compassion, and sometimes unflinching ruthlessness.
LINK (12 MB)
By Stephen Scobie
The French Revolution may seem like an odd choice of topic for a late 20th century Scottish experimental poet. Yet Ian Hamilton Finlay, one of the leading figures in the international movement called Concrete Poetry, was for many years fascinated by the events of 1789 to 1794 in France. He found in the Revolution—in its iconography and its ideology—an exemplary test case for ideas about contemporary politics and aesthetics, and the flexibility of Concrete Poetry’s visual idioms provided the ideal medium for exploring these ideas.
Most of the works in this exhibit date from around 1989, which was the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Finlay indeed proposed works for the official celebration of the Bicentenary that were rejected by French authorities, amidst fierce and undignified controversy. His evident admiration for such extreme Revolutionary leaders as Maximilien Robespierre and Antoine Saint-Just was misinterpreted as a simple-minded endorsement of the Terror. Nevertheless, Finlay remained fascinated by the French Revolution, and continued to produce many works relating to it, before and after 1989. This exhibition is devoted to a selection of these works.
The iconography of the official celebration was itself more than a little ambivalent. Images of the liberated Bastille prison were everywhere; the tricolor abounded; and postcards offered endless risqué variations on the theme of “sans-culottes.” Conspicuously absent, however, was any evidence of what is, arguably, the Revolution’s most potent visual symbol: the guillotine.
The guillotine is the dark shadow of the Revolution. It’s fine to proclaim Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, but no one in Paris in 1989 wanted to celebrate the Terror. In the orthodox historical interpretation, the French Revolution is exemplary among revolutions in showing how the fervor of high ideals degenerates into factional bloodlust: how, in the famous words of the Girondin (moderate) politician Pierre Vergniaud, “it must be feared that the Revolution, like Saturn, successively devouring its children, will engender, finally, only despotism.” The guillotine is the emblem of this degeneration, the visual image of the Terror. As an image, the guillotine still has the power to terrify, to disturb, and to disrupt the complacency of any “politically correct” celebration.
Finlay, however (and this was a large part of the objections to his proposals), never ignored the guillotine. Take, for example, an emblem created by him in 1991: a drawing of the guillotine accompanied by the caption “A model of order even if set in a space filled with doubt.” As with so many of Finlay’s works, the point lies in the interaction between the visual and the verbal, the image and its accompanying text. In this case, the text is also a quotation, and thus brings with it all the implications of its original context. But before I discuss that source, I would like to consider the words as they stand. That the French Revolution was “a space filled with doubt” is obvious enough; but in what sense, then, was the guillotine “a model of order”?
Certainly, it was as a “model of order” that the machine was first proposed to the National Assembly, in 1789, by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who later bitterly resented the fact that his name had become attached to the instrument of his idea). It was part of a typical Enlightenment proposal for the rational reform of the criminal laws; the guillotine would be the most efficient, humane, and egalitarian method of execution. It did away with the variety of different methods—most of them long drawn-out exercises in torture, or else liable to hideous botching by incompetent executioners—that were applied in ancien régime France. Henceforth, no one would be broken on the wheel or hung, drawn, and quartered; the quick death of beheading, once the “privilege” of the nobility, would now be the common lot of lord and peasant. Engravings presented by Dr. Guillotin show the executions taking place in private, rural settings; they suggest, as Simon Schama says, “dignified serenity rather than macabre retribution.” By the time the guillotine was officially adopted in 1792, it had also become important for the state to reclaim the legal monopoly of violence. The guillotine replaced not only more barbaric methods of official execution but also mob lynchings, the kind of indiscriminate massacre that took place in the Paris prisons in September 1792.
In all these senses, then, the guillotine can be seen as “a model of order.” It stood for the values of rationality, humanity, and control that formed the Revolution’s ideology (though not always, by any means, its practice). Many of the revolutionary politicians, including Robespierre and Saint-Just, had gone through a school system that included intensive study of the oratory of the Roman Republic. The stern Roman ideals of civic duty, memorably presented in David’s painting of Brutus and his dead sons, were at the center of the Revolution’s idea of Virtue. It is all too easy for a modern audience to scoff at the protestations of Robespierre and Saint-Just, and to see their “virtue” stained by the blood spilled by Dr. Guillotin’s humane device. But they themselves saw no contradiction.
In a folder of cards entitled 4 Blades (1986), Ian Hamilton Finlay presents four linked quotations, each one printed on a drawing (again by Gary Hincks) of a guillotine blade:
The first quotation is from the 18th century writer and encyclopedist Denis Diderot; the second from the 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin; the third from Maximilien Robespierre; the fourth is by Finlay himself. To read the interaction of these quotations is a complex matter—and is, indeed, an exemplary exercise in the “reading” of Finlay’s poetry. Diderot’s reputation is that of a moderate, reasonable man, the epitome of the Enlightenment; Robespierre is commonly dismissed as a totalitarian fanatic. Yet both insist on the moral function of terror. Poussin’s description of form as determined by function relates not only to the aesthetics of neo-Classical painting but also to the single-minded efficiency of the blade on which it is here inscribed; and his evocation of terror as one of the purposes of art echoes back to Aristotle and the classical doctrine of catharsis. Finlay’s dictum hinges on the very equivocal reaction that a contemporary secular audience is liable to have to the word “piety.” The visual format presents each quotation in an equivalent way—these are four blades, all of them aphorisms with a cutting edge—but also balances them against each other—these are four blades. None of this is to argue that Finlay is, in any simple way, endorsing terror (the Terror; terror-ism); it is to suggest that the issues are nowhere as simple (or, as it were, clear-cut) as the conventional historiography of the French Revolution has come to imply.
4 Blades is balanced, in Finlay’s work, by a lethally simple booklet entitled 4 Baskets (1990). Each page features a drawing, by Kathleen Lindsley, of a wicker basket; the drawings are detailed, realistic, and charming. Each drawing has as a title a single word, an adjective drawn from the cultural vocabulary of the Enlightenment. The first basket is entitled “Domestic,” and it contains three French loaves and a bottle of wine; the second is entitled “Pastoral,” and it contains a fishing net and an abundant sheaf of corn; the third is entitled “Parnassian,” and it contains a wreath of laurel leaves, the poet’s crown; the fourth is entitled “Sublime,” and it contains two severed heads.
The alliance of Terror and the Sublime was a central aspect of Enlightenment aesthetics, notably proclaimed (ironically, since he was a bitter opponent of the French Revolution) by Edmund Burke:
Finlay follows through on this association on numerous occasions: for instance, in the print Two Landscapes of the Sublime (1989), which juxtaposes the guillotine with the most traditional “natural” instance of the Romantic Sublime, a waterfall. The same point is also made in a folding card entitled “SUBLIME,” which takes a sentence from “FH” (Friedrich Hegel) and adds to it a sentence by “IHF”:
(The “man-made mountain” is an allusion to the fact that the extreme Jacobin faction in the Constituent Assembly was popularly known as “The Mountain.”)
For Finlay, then, the association of Terror and the Sublime is brought firmly into the political arena (in ways of which Burke would have utterly disapproved). A modest folding card from 1989 bears the title “A Proposal for the Celebration of the Bicentenary of the French Revolution”; inside, in large red letters, one reads simply: “A REVOLUTION.” In 1984, he designed a medal (struck in bronze by Nicolas Sloan), one side of which shows two Classical columns flanked by the word “Virtue,” while the other side shows the two vertical columns of the guillotine, flanked by the word “Terror.” Virtue and Terror become, quite literally, the two sides of the same coin. In Finlay’s work, this conjoined evocation of Virtue, Terror, and the Sublime, within a political setting, is not simply an exercise in 18th century antiquarianism, but a direct challenge to the political values of contemporary liberal, secular society.
Finlay in no way diminishes or ignores the violence, the destructive power of Terror. Indeed, he faces it head on, in ways which (he believes) modern secular society does not. “Democracies,” he writes, “are not at ease with their weaponry, or with their art, because both depend on ideas of the Absolute which, in Finlay’s view, secular society cannot accommodate and prefers to ignore. “Classicism was at home with power,” he continues; “the modern democracies (whose secularism has produced extraordinary power) are not.” By its reinsertion of the Sublime (as Virtue, as Terror) into a society that finds such an equation unacceptable, Finlay’s poetry underlines the distance that separates our society from one that could, authentically, long for the Classical past.
Stephen Bann writes that Finlay’s Classicism is “intimately linked to a sense of estrangement from the Classical, and, for that reason, it has its most clear affinities with the art of those epochs when estrangement from the past was the dominant tone.” There is, in fact, a double distancing here. The Jacobin idealists longed for a Roman past from which they felt separated; Finlay, as it were, longs for that longing. “The world has been silent since the Romans left,” wrote Saint-Just elegiacally. For Finlay, one might say, the world has been silent since Saint-Just left—guillotined, along with Robespierre, in the month of Thermidor, Year II of the Revolution. But his words remain, inscribed in stone at the base of a classical column, set in the wildest, loneliest section of Finlay’s garden at Little Sparta.
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Let me now return to where I started, the image of a guillotine captioned “A model of order even if set in a space filled with doubt.” Let me take all I have said about the guillotine, Terror, and Virtue, and invite the viewer of this small exhibition to re-apply it in a new context—or rather, in an old context, namely, the original source of that phrase. It comes from a letter Finlay wrote to the French poet Pierre Garnier in September of 1963. This passage has been widely reproduced as one of the founding manifestos of Concrete Poetry. I think it is still worth reprinting again, at some length:
This passage invites extensive commentary, some of which I have attempted to provide elsewhere. For now, let me make only a few preliminary suggestions for further consideration.
— “Concrete” poetry depends upon a reworking of syntax in language, in a way closely analogous to the reworking of perspective in Cubism. (Finlay himself was deeply indebted to the Cubist painters, especially Juan Gris.)
— Finlay’s work, both as a poet and as a visual artist, is deeply traditional, in that it depends upon elements drawn from the whole history of Western culture; at the same time, it is deeply experimental, in that the deployment of these elements takes place in ways that are new, unexpected, and demanding. The method of reading each poem is not explained in advance by poetic conventions: it has to be intuited from the form presented by each individual poem.
— The “beautiful” is not merely an intensification of the pretty: it is a high and stern ideal, in which the Sublime meets and acknowledges Terror. It is in this sense that even the guillotine, at the moment when the blade falls, is beautiful.
Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety. New York: Picador, 1992.
David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution. London: Abacus, 2006.