Ian Hamilton Finlay


Scotsman Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was a poet, a gardener and a moralist. His extensive oeuvre, including the famous garden “Little Sparta” near Edinburgh, does not fit neatly into the categories of fine arts. Within literary circles, Finlay is seen as the most important British representative of concrete poetry, and the written word is both point of departure and feature of the overwhelming majority of his sculptures, reliefs, drawings and prints. He liberates his one-word-poems and one-liners—ranging from the intimate dimensions of a postcard to texts painted on walls or carved into rock, all the way to architectural and horticultural designs—from the straitjacket of poetry and opens the way for them to advance into space. Among the grand themes in Hamilton’s oeuvre are the classical literature of antiquity (first and foremost Virgil), the French revolution and the “Third Reich”. Recurring motives are sailboats, warships and guillotines. He cites other artists (Poussin, Magritte) as freely as he does Hölderlin and Saint-Just. His works are often characterised by an austerity bordering on the bleak, but at the same time display a sly humour and Attic mirth. He often left the execution of his ideas to “collaborators” (craftsmen, illustrators or other artists) whom he would always mention by name. In 2004, a jury in Scotland chose his artistic synthesis, the garden “Little Sparta”, developed since 1966, as the “most important national work of art”. In 1985, Finlay was nominated for the Turner Prize. At the 1987 documenta 8 in Kassel he put on a much-noted outdoor installation, a street made of bronze guillotines.