Finlay's garden Little Sparta is one of the wonders of 20th-century art. Now a collection of his artworks has been brought indoors at the Tate. James Campbell finds clarity and lyricism in the work of a difficult artist
"When I hear the words Arts Council", Ian Hamilton Finlay once wrote, "I reach for my water pistol." The body in the line of fire was the Scottish Arts Council. The choice of weapons was not just a joke: in retreat from a world in which the art object is apt to be overshadowed by its publicity, Finlay created his sculptural garden at Stonypath, Lanarkshire, in the Pentland Hills some 30 miles south-west of Edinburgh. Already a practitioner of concrete poetry, Finlay began "planting" poems, if not in concrete, then in marble, granite, slate, across streams, on gardening tools, even in the trees: "WOOD / WIND / SONG, WIND / WOOD, WOOD- / WIND / SONG". Firing his pistol at the arts-governing bodies he regarded as being in opposition to his purity of purpose, he could water his garden at the same time.
A sufferer from chronic agoraphobia for much of his adult life, Finlay, who died in 2006 at the age of 80, hardly left the confines of Stonypath for over 30 years. Therefore his exile had to be made unconfined. If the battles were to be won – and there were to be many of them – the "retreat" must become "an attack". It was an important principle of Finlay's thinking that his garden, one of the wonders of 20th-century art, was not the idyllic creation that some well-intentioned admirers mistook it for. Rather it was, like all gardens, in a permanent state of revolution. Whereas the grove may be cultivated, nature, its governing force, is wild. "Life is full of problems," Finlay wrote to the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl in 1967. "Not least the moles, which can RUIN a good garden-poem overnight." Violent action is required, with hoe, spade, axe – or water pistol – to preserve a state of order.
The new display at Tate Britain, curated by Andrew Wilson, plays with some of these characteristic tendencies. The exhibits are assembled in the Duveen Galleries, which also serve as a junction for visitors passing from one part of the building to another, and which seem an austere space for an artist much of whose work was conceived to flourish in the open air. But the show, which is confined to materials from the Tate's own holdings, offers a guide to Finlay's themes.
It is important to understand, as not everybody does, that Finlay designed but did not make his sculptures. They were created according to his precise specifications by "collaborators". Moreover, in addition to Stonypath, he designed gardens on commission, such as Fleur de l'air in Provence, but being agoraphobic he was seldom able to see his works in situ. The practical duty of installation was done by his wife Sue, and later by Pia Simig, while the craftsmanship was entrusted to an ever-changing team of collaborators, some of whom Finlay never met. He was, however, always scrupulous about crediting them. The work of John Andrew, Ron Costley and Nicholas Sloan, among others, is on view at the Tate. A neon script at the Duveen's northern end, "Je vous salue marat", a homage in red, white and blue to the French revolutionary, was made by Julie Farthing.
The largest part of the display is given over to A Wartime Garden (1989), consisting of 24 blocks of limestone, measuring roughly 8ins x 10ins, each standing on a wooden pilaster, arranged in groups of six. The stones bear exquisite carvings, often of a military vehicle or vessel – tank, battleship, submarine, aircraft carrier – and a one- or two-word title. Image and word thus create a visual poem. The battleship with all guns raised vertically is titled "FOUNTAIN". A tank camouflaged by foliage is "PERGOLA". The fighter plane that soars noisily into the sky to mount an attack is altered in character by our reading of the title, "LYRE-BIRD". There is a guard-post of the type familiar from films about concentration camps, called "MOUNT". Here too is the emblem that was one of Finlay's favourites: the machine gun with holes in the barrel, enabling it to double as "REED-PIPE". In another section of the exhibition, an arrangement of gardening tools is dominated by a fierce guillotine blade, on which are inscribed Dido's words from the Aeneid: "Quin morere ut merita es ferroque averte dolorem" ("Die as you deserve, with steel end your pain").
It is impossible not to wonder what the viewer unfamiliar with the poet's iconography will make of this. The dominant presence is of Finlay's favourite revolutionary, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just (1767-94), the architect – the unstoppable Scottish punster surely relished that cliché – of the terror that followed the first successes of the French revolution. There might be a temptation to view Finlay's art as promoting some kind of ironic anti-war message. Is that stone emblem of a battleship with "TEMPLE" above it a disapproving comment on the ship's destructive intentions? Maybe; but bear in mind that the sea-borne temple also conserves the cultivated gardens that harbour the temples of art. The fighter plane taking off from the aircraft carrier over a calm sea with "LAWN" carved above is protecting, in one way or another, the pastoral acres of Stonypath. To ignore the part that war plays in peace is to fall foul of another stone mounted on a pilaster, that symbol of classical civilisation, this time without any emblem, just a text from Plotinus: "The animals devour each other: / Men attack each other: / All is war without rest, / Without truce."
Finlay was first a short story writer, then a poet. His stapled-together collection of tales,The Sea-Bed and Other Stories, was issued in Edinburgh in 1958 by a publisher so obscure as to be otherwise invisible. His next book, The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960), consisted of short, often homely poems:
When I have talked for an hour I feel lousy –
Not so when I have danced for an hour:
The dancers inherit the party
While the talkers wear themselves out and
sit in corners alone, and glower.
When Fulcrum Press, then the leading publisher of avant garde poetry in Britain, went to reprint a revised version in 1969, Finlay took legal action against them for the presumption of calling it a "first edition", and attempted to have the book withdrawn from sale. This was an early assault in his ongoing culture wars. Letters were written on headed notepaper, "Society for the Protection of the Arts Against the Scottish Arts Council". In an attempt to mollify him, the SAC arranged to host an exhibition in 1978 at the council's Charlotte Square headquarters. As invitees gathered on the steps for the official opening, word came through that Finlay had cancelled the show. Some observers regarded these manoeuvres as mischievous and exasperating. As a result, Finlay's status in Scotland from the 1960s onwards was vague. "I am not regarded as a poet here", he wrote to Jandl. "Mostly, Scotch poets … do not understand modern poetry at all."
The artist's best-known military exploit occurred at Stonypath itself in 1983. Strathclyde Regional Council had informed Finlay that because he was using the barn on his property as an art gallery, he would be liable to pay higher rates. Finlay disputed the categorisation, and refused. It was a temple, he said – from now on temples would need chaperoning by battleships – and his garden was a "religious place". When the sheriff officer and a platoon of bailiffs arrived, Finlay and his Saint-Just Vigilantes – a band of loyal, not to say fanatical, supporters – fought them off with specially constructed panzer tanks letting off explosions. As the enemy beat a retreat, it found itself trapped. "A neighbouring farmer had parked his tractor behind the sheriff officer's car and taken the wheels off the tractor", Finlay told me in 2003. "It was a thoroughly satisfying day."
Stonypath became known as Little Sparta: Sparta being the traditional enemy of Athens, and Edinburgh the Athens of the North. A bronze plaque at the entrance depicts a machine gun, similar to the one on display at the Tate, with a visually punning flute-holed barrel. Under Stonypath's piping weapon is a line from Virgil, which could have been taken as a motto for the Duveen Galleries show: "Flute, begin with me."
A sampling of Finlay's concrete poetry is exhibited, together with several publications of the Wild Hawthorn Press, which he set up to issue poem-cards, lithographs, booklets and decorative tiles, examples of all of which are on display. The Tate describes him as "Britain's foremost concrete poet", which is unfair to the late Edwin Morgan, who introduced Finlay to concrete poetry, and whose own work is more wide-ranging (in private, Finlay was disparaging of Morgan's concrete efforts, calling them "not serious"). Here we see the poster poem "Le Circus" (1964), which is about many things but not a circus in the expected sense. K47 refers to the number of an Orkney fishing boat – a smack – which is compared to a pony leaping through a hoop, as the boat passes under and above the curve of a rainbow and its reflection on the sea's surface. The green and red blinkers are port and starboard lights. Those keen to see more of Finlay's poetry, concrete and otherwise, will find a generous serving inSelections, a 300-page book published earlier this year, together with short stories, "domestic pensées", illustrations and a long introduction by Alec Finlay, the artist's son.
One of the many commanding monumental sculptures at Stonypath is a set of 11 irregularly cut stones (made by Nicholas Sloan), with a single word incised on each: "The Present Order Is the Disorder of the Future. Saint-Just". Or to put it in domesticated form, today's nicely trimmed garden is tomorrow's overgrown tangle. The Tate has a similar exhibit, also bearing the words of Saint-Just, which is allowed to dominate the entire southern end of the Duveen Galleries: six fragments of Bath stone suspended from chains to create a 7m-long frieze (again cut by Sloan): "The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans".
This is forbidding, and the most difficult exhibit to make sense of, even within an understanding of Finlay's vision of the poem – including the concrete poem (or Bath-stone poem) – as a place of order inhabited by paradox. Obviously, the world has not been empty since Roman times, nor has civilisation stood still. Saint-Just's invocation may be read as a line from his gospel of terror, and as such points towards a troubling area of Finlay's art. What does the artist intend when he titles a work "The Third Reich Revisited", or when decorating a tank with SS-style lightning bolts? Finlay corresponded with Hitler's architect, Albert Speer. In 1987, a commission from the French ministry of culture to design a garden at Versailles was cancelled, after the editor of an art magazine publicised what she saw as an unhealthy fascination with Nazi iconography in his work (Finlay later sued and won nominal damages in a French court). When, some years ago, I asked the writer and landscape gardener Charles Jencks, a friend of Finlay's, to explain these "electrically charged signs", he replied: "Most positive symbols have been drained of power by our consumerist, sensationalist culture, but these symbols – the SS lightning bolts, the machine guns and so on – retain their potency. Finlay is showing a Britain without a belief in anything. He uses the iconography of violence and hatred responsibly."
It is agreed by many people who had contact with him that, at the same time as being highly endearing, Finlay was a "difficult" fellow, and his art is held to be difficult, too. The objection frustrated him. "Why doesn't anyone write about the CLARITY in my work, and its LYRICISM", he complained in 1991, "and its (frequent) love of the ORDINARY?"
Clarity and lyricism are the ultimate joy of Finlay's work, even though it seems at times that a knowledge of Latin and a beginner's guide to the French revolution are needed to get there. It is a pity that the limitations of the Tate's holdings mean that the exhibition's themes are more or less restricted to war and peace, disorder and order. Until the end of his life, Finlay delighted in the playfulness of the "wee boy" he had been when he first discovered he was not quite of this world. He continued to celebrate and remake the playthings that helped him make sense of it, principally toy boats. The Tate exhibition is worth visiting, however, even if only as the first step on the road to Little Sparta. Finlay was such an advanced experimentalist that he rejected that term, considering "experiment in all fields old-fashioned". Take that as you wish; there is no arguing with his description of himself: he was the avant-gardener.