She now lay deaf to death.
She could have grown a good rutabaga
in the burial ground
and how she’d have loved these woods.
One of her pallbearers said I
like a damfool followed a deer
wanted to see her jump a fence (
the way she runs.
Noo lyin deef tae daith...
Och, think on aa the rhubarb
she micht hae grawn there
on her lair
an hoo she wud
hae lood sic wids.
The wan o her pallbearers saye
I, silly eedjit
gaed aff ahint a deer
never’d seen a deer
Loup over a fence ( O
Finlay founded the Wild Hawthorn Press with Jessie McGuffie, which eventually published books by Niedecker, Zukofsky and himself, and it is this project, along with his periodical Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (the title is taken from Robert Creeley’s poem “Please”) that initiated his interest in design and typography. During this early period, he was also writing distinctive short stories and plays in a high Symbolist manner, but after a time he ceased any activity in these forms. He held his first exhibition of toys that he had designed in 1963, thus taking a further step in his progression to explorations of stasis, making a move — in the words of Yves Abrioux, author of Ian Hamlton Finlay, A Visual Primer — “away from Syntax toward ‘the Pure’”. Three years later, he settled with his wife Sue Finlay at Stonypath, where they began to construct their world-famous garden based on principles of eighteenth century English theories of landscape.
Finlay has said in an interview: “Before we had the garden, I considered myself to be a poet and I wrote things in notebooks or I did prints. But with the garden, one makes this astonishing discovery that you can actually change a bit of the actual world by taking out a spade of earth. And this, to me, was really... a momentous discovery.” Finlay’s work changed dramatically when he started work on the garden, and he began to use imagery that not only defied the cosmopolitan in its rusticity, but provoked responses from viewers who were accustomed to flux, pastiche, irony, and psychological depth in their art.
Imagery from the military became an element in his iconography, and soon the trawlers that represented the pastoral to him were being replaced by battleships such as the Japanese Yamato and the USS Enterprise.
One of Finlay’s most illustrative printed works is the depiction of a tank in an overgrown forest with the words “Et In Arcadia Ego” beneath it, a reference to Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds, depicting the shepherds gazing at this phrase carved in a tablet discovered in a forest. Abrioux writes that this image reflects “the progressive formation of the cultural concept of ‘Arcady’, with its almost infinite tissue of poetic references converging upon the point that even here, in the ideal pastoral world, death is present.” Finlay’s print, because it adopts a pre-existing motif, rises from the level of a moral “emblem” to an enigma, for (Abrioux writes) “the treasure, such as it is, is necessarily remote from us, and we have no foolproof method of lifting the hermetic seal.” That is, whereas the classical moral emblem is not aware of its medium and refers to nothing outside of itself, Finlay’s neo-classical “enigma” refers not only to the moral sentiment but to cultural predecessors, thus contrasting this apparently eternal equation to its own multiplicity of expressions throughout history.
In this way, part of the strangeness of Finlay’s “Et In Arcadia Ego” is like that of Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (his idiosyncratic homage to the French artist replaces the pipe with a machine gun) in that there is a visual distancing, or doubling, accompanying the directness of the verbal statement.
Finlay has retained this Arcadian equation in the design of his own garden and those that he has been commissioned to design; the role of the “viewer”, then, upon visiting the garden, becomes that of a collaborator in its cultural reduplications. One critic has contrasted his neo-classical gardens with Poussin’s painting by observing that the former “[projects] the visitor into a concrete experience which is not limited by the borders of the picture frame or predetermined by the imperfect enunciation of the inscribed message.” A garden as ordered and orchestrated as Finlay’s is, however, still framed — and needs this frame, for its meanings are centered around its own contexts with the exterior world.
This is an important element to remember when interpreting his work, for his gardens never want to colonize the outside, to populate it with replications of itself, but are always aware of their separateness and high artifice; they don’t even propose a vocabulary for the world through which it can observe itself, but merely an image — and actual location — in which the “eternal”, a sort of imageless ideal, can be sensed.
“Finlay and commentators working with him have on occasion set his work in opposition to the modern world — a world whose values are characterized (adversely) as ‘secular’, ‘liberal’, ‘pluralistic’, ‘materialistic’, and ‘utilitarian’”, writes another critic, “Counter to this, some re-spiritualisation, some idea of a whole culture and a right relation to nature is suggested, in accord with what is called a ‘Western tradition’; and some history of loss is implied.”
Because Finlay is both uncompromising yet indirect in his intentions — from one angle he is a visionary involved in a private symbology, from another a political propagandist as blatant as a Soviet poster artist — one hesitates to embrace or approve of his work, since one fears that hidden meanings may emerge to tip the scales, and turn his project from a delicate and profound investigation into obsessions with the military and totalitarian governments. He has taken, for instance, an interest in the architecture of the Third Reich, and has corresponded with the architect Albert Speer, who had designed, in secret, his own neo-classical garden while the Nazis were in power, and had in the process developed many theories of gardening.
Because he is willing to correspond with people like Speer, and because there is no general discourse on how to approach the aesthetic aspects of such political phenomenon as the French Revolution and the Third Reich, gauging the value of his interest in the architect and his times is difficult. Is he merely interested in that which is absent from our contemporary art vocabulary, or does he want a resurrection of the values that underlay (in bastardized form) the aesthetic component of the world’s historical nightmares? Finlay’s work clearly champions the inevitabilities of nature over the illusory eternity that technology seems to provide, and yet does he have to use such imagery as the “SS” in the shape of lightning bolts — more imagery from the Third Reich — to make this point? As an artist who sets himself and his work apart from much of the “modern” — his gardens are designed to defy the highways, airports, and even other gardens, that are their neighbors — he has also taken this “setting apart” as the subject of his art itself, conceiving, it appears, the artist’s role in society as being akin to that of a soldier at war with the disposable and trivial, and hence finding a justification for the belligerence of his symbols.
Finlay’s is a representational art that returns to the trees, wind and waves sacrificed in early modernism, but passing up the medium of paint and canvas so that the perceiver is returned to the object direct. A poem of his from 1968, composed entirely of the names of trawlers, contains a note of nostalgia that disappears when one realizes that the nostalgia being expressed is composed out of actualities that are, nonetheless, in danger of being lost; the trawlers become, in this way, concrete poems speaking of the loss of themselves both as medium and subject:
His discovery, upon placing his first concrete poem on the landscape, was that the poet is not limited to describing Utopias but that the poet can usurp a medium that was once thought reserved to architects, and bring syntax to the physical landscape. In the process, he has also utilized a number of the most volatile symbols in his quest to escape an ironized (and hence forgetful) view of history, to find stasis in the postmodern flux, to describe the presence of the death in his “Arcady”, and to make cultural statements that are direct and altering, yet also enigmas.
The works demand to be judged (the Epic Theater comes to mind) but one also recognizes the difficulty of rendering them propaganda for a political cause, for they all retain the quality of the “toy”, all of them foregrounding their artifice as much as anchoring themselves within the “ethical” conscience - retaining, finally, the sheen of a formalist self-referencing that place them well within the idiom of the postmodern.