LINCOLN — Imagine yourself strolling through a verdant park, enjoying the pleasant vistas, the richer oxygen, the weird, wrap-around three-dimensionality of it all (so unlike a screen), and then, out of nowhere . . . Zzzzzp. (Ouch!) And a minute later . . . Zzzzzp! (Yeow!) And so on.
Not insects, but words deliver these rousing stings. And their little pricks of poison are felt not on the skin but in that part of the body encrusted with cant and cliché called the brain.
Hello, and thank you, Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Finlay (1925-2006), a Scotsman, is the subject of a small but deeply engaging show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum this summer. Although most of the work is indoors and on framed pieces of paper, it's advisable — it's almost inevitable — that, while viewing it, you imagine yourself wandering through a carefully tended neoclassical garden, receiving Finlay's verbal (but also graphic and sculptural) stings with varying degrees of dismay, pleasure, and irritation.
Gardening was one of Finlay's abiding obsessions. The others were classical poetry and philosophy (above all Virgil and his "Eclogues"), the French Revolution, World War II, boating, and the sea. A strange mix, on the face of it, but they all combined symphonically in Finlay's 5-acre garden, the pungently named "Little Sparta," in the Pentland Hills, smack bang in the center of southern Scotland.
At Little Sparta, Finlay tinkered with the landscape over many decades, like a kind of Scottish Monet, his garden a northern Giverny. Except that, instead of mirroring nature's teeming, evanescent splendor, a la Monet, Finlay's interest was in imposing order and words — order in the form of words — on nature's native unruliness.
It was, in this sense, a social undertaking — and like all meaningful social undertakings, it implied conflict, sacrifice, and the ever-present threat of anarchy. "It is the case with gardens as societies," Finlay wrote: "some things require to be fixed so that others may be placed."
Underwriting Finlay's incessant provocations was a sense that the most potent of Western ideals — those that derived from classical antiquity — had been drained of meaning, assimilated, and rendered innocuous by political naivete and complaisant consumerism. "The universe of the modern liberal," he once wrote, "is a fiction (because it excludes all the elements of 'the given' which he does not like to think about) . . . "
Finlay immersed himself in a tradition — at once classical, poetic, and militaristic — that would overrun and assault that complaisance, like a swarm of bees. Among his favorite symbols — they recur throughout the show — were tanks, warships, guillotines, and guns.
His art, however, was not just antagonistic; it was elegiac. Like an inland farmer measuring his distance from the sea (and all its poetry), he was concerned less with actual revolution than with measuring out the distance between the "then" of classical antiquity and the "now" of postmodern cultural enfeeblement.
Born in the Bahamas to Scottish parents, Finlay returned to Scotland to be educated and was sent away to be with family in the countryside when war broke out in 1939. He was conscripted into the British Army in 1942, later worked as a shepherd on the Orkney Islands, and turned to writing — poetry and short stories — in the late 1950s.
If this movement — from student to soldier to shepherd to poet, all in staccato succession — created conceptual dissonance and even a bit of feedback screech in Finlay's ardent young mind, he would put it all to good use.
After founding, with Jessie McGuffie, the Hawthorn Press in 1961, he established a periodical, "Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (P.O.T.H.)" the following year. Soon after, he developed an interest — crucial for his work — in concrete poetry (in which the typography and layout of letters and words is as potential as the words' sounds and meanings).
Aphorisms, quotations, and various verbal parries became central to his approach. The deCordova show, organized by new chief curator Jennifer Gross, is abuzz with them. The effect is to make a fairly small show (most of it drawn from a single private collection, and much of it falling into the category of ephemera) feel intellectually expansive but — what with explanatory wall texts and labels — at times a little trying.
One wall is taken up with 100 framed postcards which together give a great sense of Finlay's obsessions and movements of his mind, from idea to graphic articulation. It's a great shame that so many are placed high up the wall, beyond inspection. But among those that are legible are many classic Finlay marriages of portentous subject matter, wry wit, and ringingly effective graphic design.
One postcard has "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and the single word "some" written three times beneath each. Another quotes Coleridge — "Nature is the Devil in a fancy waistcoat" — and follows it with Finlay's "translation for our time": "Nature is a storm trooper in a camouflage smock." Another simply says: "Small is Quite Beautiful."
Many of Finlay's jabs are no more than dinner party witticisms (My favorite: "A World Cup without Scotland is like a pastoral without sheep.") Others are obliquely suggestive; they dance skittishly at the edge of deeper waters. An abstract red and blue design vaguely suggestive of camouflage, for instance, is accompanied by the deadpan claim: "In World War I, many ships were sunk by submarines which disliked modern art."
Others articulate Finlay's ideas more straightforwardly: an image of a guillotine wrapped in flowering vines, for instance, has the following caption:
"Both the garden style called 'sentimental,' and the French Revolution, grew from Rousseau. The garden trellis, and the guillotine, are alike entwined with the honeysuckle of the new 'sensibility.' "
The provocations accumulate slowly: Nearby prints combine the image of a tank painted in camouflage and the word "Arcadia," or a repeating motif of a fighter plane with folded wings with the word "Lullaby." Yet another work transforms the rectilinear marks of a drawing by Mondrian into Luftwaffe crosses.
There is a playfulness at the heart of Finlay's approach that leaves you constantly wondering how seriously to take his deeper convictions. What are we to make, for instance, of his decision to send a little chapbook marked with a swastika, and filled with various definitions of the word, to various critics?
Or of his fervent admiration for the Jacobins of the French Revolution — above all Robespierre and Saint-Just — and his dedication to the guillotine as a symbol? ("Don't put all your heads in one basket" reads one especially droll print.)
It's clear Finlay saw himself as a warrior against the pieties and platitudes of contemporary political consensus. He fought battles not only against clichés and critics but against local councils who would compromise his ambitions for his garden (those battles in fact inspired the name Little Sparta). The results were often brilliantly pithy: One poster, inscribed in best neoclassical font with the words "SOCIETY FOR THE PROTECTION OF THE ARTS AGAINST THE ARTS COUNCIL" has, in quotation marks below, "When I hear the words 'Arts Council' I reach for my water pistol."
And yet, for all his provocations, Finlay was, at bottom, an aesthete. He was a poet. His championing of revolutionary extremes and his apparent glorification of military symbols strike me as the ambivalent pseudo-actions (because words are not, finally, actions) of an amateur — in the original sense: a lover. They were salutary slaps around the face.
Remember, they seem to say, what is at stake at every moment, even as you water your garden or write your poems. Remember what convictions — and what drastic actions carried out for the sake of those convictions — made this unique, this essentially unprecedented, dispensation possible.
One series of posters here contains a series of quotations from Saint-Just: "The blade stained with blood is no more the French Revolution than the altar stained with blood is Greece and Rome," reads one. Another: "The blade is not an image of death and violence, it is an image of responsible action."
Such words sting. They wrap blatant insanity in a veneer of reasonableness, by which we should not be deceived if we want to avoid chaos, bloodshed, catastrophe. But don't they also contain, at their very core, a terrible truth?
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.