It's been a funny month; there have been the odd occasions when I thought I'd never get to the end, other times when I've felt very well. I've had a mad-ish day in London, taking in five exhibitions, shopped for a sofa and used my RA friend card for the first time, as well as afternoon tea in 'Maison Bertaux' in Greek Street. London energizes me somehow. For the record the exhibitions were: Moroni (again) and Charles Stewart at the RA, Maggi Hambling and Peder Balke at The National, and Tudor Royal Portraits at the NPG. I think, if I were to choose one of them to return to, it would be the last, the Tudor portraits. Something deeply satisfying about them.
And then last week I spent a few days with the bf. On Thursday I dragged him to Kettle's Yard to an exhibition of work by Ian Hamilton Finlay from the collection of Professor Stephen Bann, a leading expert on Finlay's work. It turns out that Finlay and Jim Ede, the creative force behind Kettle's Yard - curator/collector as creative artist - had corresponded for a number of years. Ede had even bought a piece or two from Finlay, and Finlay had carved a pebble with a sort of backhanded compliment about Kettle's Yard being the Louvre of the pebble. An ambiguous relationship then.
I first came across the work of Finlay in the 1987 exhibition 'Real Architecture' which was held at The Building Centre Gallery in Store St., London. He was there because of his transformation of his Scottish garden on the western edge of the Pentland Hills into 'Little Sparta' - a landscape garden inspired by Classical myth and the eighteenth century landscape tradition. This re-ordering of nature, which continued from 1978 until his death and created one of the most challenging and intellectual gardens in Britain, was represented at Kettle's Yard by the showing of a documentary. Could it, I wonder be categorized as radically conservative work? Either way it can be seen as highly innovative.
And perhaps that ambiguity is at the core of Finlay's work. He was part poet, part typographer, sculptor, conceptual artist and part gardener. Modernist and Classicist. A Janus figure. He started as a writer and became interested in Concrete Poetry, where the placing of the poem on the paper, or whatever media, is as important as the words themselves. And it was, obviously, with the these early works where the exhibition began. As we progressed other interests showed themselves: there were some beautifully drawn boats in the form of prints. Other, sinister, machines appeared too: tanks and battleships. A lot of this work had been printed by the two presses Finlay ran in his life - the Wild Flounder Press and The Wild Hawthorn Press - the latter still going. As I have already mentioned Finlay was a Classicist. He had a perennial interest in the myths and philosophy of Antiquity, and in his later work this becomes more apparent, though with it's referencing of the French Revolution and the Nazi period this later work can be unsettling. Both regimes were haunted by Antiquity, as perhaps has all Western Culture. Europe, it could be argued, has been in a post-colonial state for the last fifteen hundred years. (And I think it can be argued that this also applies to the Middle East, though to a lesser degree.) Perhaps that is one of Finlay's themes: how we are haunted by the Classical past. The giants on whose shoulders we perch. And I suppose it is the Classicism and the quality of the typography that interested me most, and although the bf hated it, I would certainly buy a print or two should I be fortunate enough to have the spare cash.
And afterwards a few minutes in the Cistercian austerity of Kettle's Yard house.