The image shows a modern battleship in a diagrammatic drawing, white outline on a deep blue ground. The operational parts of the battleship are labelled A, B, C, and D, and these letters cross- refer to a key written below. But what the key tells you is not the names of these parts. It says: A Doric, B Ionic, C Corinthian, D Composite - the names of the classical architectural orders. And beneath this there's written a sentence (a quotation from Hermann Hesse). "For the temples of the Greeks our homesickness lasts for ever".
This is a work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, and in several ways characteristic. It has an essential verbal element; Finlay was first a poet, and his visual art always insists upon the question of meaning. It was made in collaboration; Finlay invents, but generally doesn't execute (the draughtsman here is Michael Harvey). It contains references that may need elucidating. It looks to the classical world. It sets very remote things together in a conjunction that points both to their likeness and their distance. Here the object is not to incite the worship of battleships, but rather a reflection on power, and where a culture locates its absolutes. And beyond that, the conjunction is enormously expansive. A Greek temple: a battleship - it's an astonishing and not simply a bizarre alignment, one in which the two objects open large dimensions of experience upon each other. Finlay's level is not always so "awesome", though. His work also compares fishing boats to lemons.
I take these maritime examples, because an exhibition of Ian Hamilton Finlay's Maritime Works has just opened at Tate St Ives. The Scottish artist was born in 1925, and the sea was one of his earliest themes - the subject of his first printed works in the Sixties, of his first public sculptures in the Seventies. It's an apt setting, this gallery that overlooks Cornwall's Atlantic coast and which marks the spot where English modernism met the sea (much of Finlay's work has involved a critical/constructive engagement with 20th-century modern art).
In this show, the sea appears as a place of labour and a theatre of war. The imaginative reach of the subject matter extends from the paper boat to the birth of Venus. The work, as it always does, marries the ideal and the practical. It knows how fishing is done, even as (in a small sculpture) it lyrically identifies net floats with the "golden oranges" of a Goethe poem. It knows how boats work, how they're made, even as it compares them with poems, or roses in a garden - or compares the rolling waves to a waving field of crops. There's a recurring emphasis on wood, the central mediating element between human beings and water, between the land where it grows and the sea where it floats.
This exhibition focuses on the maritime work. But Finlay is not just a maritime artist. The sea is only one current of his art - as you can see from a small retrospective of his prints, running concurrently at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. And what should be more and more impressive is the scale of this body of work: the diversity of its forms, the abundance of its invention, its sheer range of topic and perspective. Finlay's creations include postcards, prints, poems, books, inscriptions, embroideries, neons, sculptures, permanent installations and landscapings, and - perhaps above all - Little Sparta, his philosophical/poetic garden in Lanarkshire.
His work is a world. It is comprehensive in a way we have learnt to expect art not to be. And while there are many things that are puzzling about Finlay's art, that expectation may cause needless difficulty. Trying to catch its tone, it's important to realise that this is an art with many. It has the breadth of response that a mature art should have. It embraces the sublime and the homely, militant ferocity, praise, the elegiac, the idyllic, the comic. The Maritime Works include, among many things, some superb jokes. …