On the right hand of London's Victoria Miro Gallery is a dining table - a rather nice dining table made from cherry wood, the sort you might buy from Habitat. It is laid with 12 place settings. Twenty-four tasteful white porcelain plates and dishes decorated with small flowers. It might be laid for a dinner party. The flower on each dish has a name beside it: Albertine Marat, Charlotte Corday, Madame Roland. The place at the head of the table has been designated for Marie-Antoinette. Twelve places. A Last Supper of sorts, for the piece is called Les Femmes de la Revolution and is the newest work by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Close by on the wall is a floral lithograph. The flowers look like illustrations from the Collins Book of Wild Flowers. They, too, are labelled with the names of women from the French Revolution. The sweetly anodyne sprigs sanitise, or a least stand in juxtaposition to, the brutality of Robespierre's Terror. Nearby are a couple of shelves. Each one holds four ceramic vases containing wild flowers. Inscribed on the jars are aphorisms, like phrases plucked from some Victorian book of moral improvement. "A bank of wild flowers is like a page of the Bible." "A wild flower is a garden flower permeated by morality and poetry." "The rationale of a wild flower, its governing principle, is always distinct."
Born in 1925 in Nassau in the Bahamas, where his father was a bootlegger, Finlay returned to Scotland as a child, where his education consisted, after the age of 13, of a single year at Glasgow School of Art before moving south to London. After military service he went back to Scotland where, for a time, he was a shepherd. His life and work are full of contradictions and enigmas. He is an autodidact, a poet and philosopher who works largely as an artist; an anarchist revolutionary who seems to find no problem in appropriating Nazi insignia for his own ends; a man preoccupied with the tensions between culture and nature, liberty and control. He is obsessed with the Classical world and mythology, which he plunders to make contemporary art, while his pusillanimous reputation has attracted almost as much attention as his poetry. He has a profound love of the sea yet has spent half a lifetime building a garden.
As a young man, Finlay saw himself as a painter rather than a poet. Then, in 1958, he published his first literary work with an obscure publisher, The Sea-Bed and Other Short Stories. Encased in a cheap card cover, it was clipped together with staples. "I write poems that demand people know what has been done in the literature and the art of the past and present," he once said. One senses he does not suffer fools gladly for there are few concessions or sign posts in his complex and, at times, gnomic works. In the 1960s, he established the Wild Hawthorn Press in Edinburgh with Jessie McGuffie, which published the work of the American Black Mountain poets (then little-known here who gathered around the poet Robert Creeley. Finlay has always been rather at odds with his compatriots, for he felt the Americans appreciated him whilst his fellow Scots did not. When interviewed for BBC radio in 1972, he said:"I feel on the edge as regards the Scottish scene, but as regards the world I feel in the centre. I seem on the edge because I am the centre."
Finlay is a poet - if poet he can truly be called, for he employs few of poetry's disciplines such as form, metre or rhyme - of aphorisms and lists. His 12 ceramic candlesticks placed on a row of wooden stools each bear the name of a French revolutionary: Robespierre, Saint-Just, Herault de Sechelles. It is largely left to the viewer to construct a meaning. For meaning is revealed - though never stated - in the juxtapositions between word and image, the interstices between signifier and sign. War and peace, violence and freedom, past and present are the binaries he …