The masterpiece of the show: “The Duke of Wellington”, c.1812, by Francisco de Goya
Ian Hamilton Finlay, who died in 2006, was the poet-artist-gardener who gave conceptual art a good name. He was, above all, refreshingly reticent, once winningly telling an interviewer: “You have to understand that I consider myself a very modest artist, or whatever, and of no importance really at all ... I am only a wee Scottish poet on the outside of everything.”
Tate Britain’s appropriately modest new display of 24 of Hamilton Finlay’s works is a welcome reminder of the originality of this avant-gardener. It shows that he was much more than just a “wee Scottish poet”. Although he started as a writer of “concrete poetry”—where the typography is as important as the meaning of the words or the rhyme—he quickly expanded beyond ink and paper. When he inscribed his words on stones and columns, urns and pieces of wood, they gained added resonance. The garden he created at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh—which in 2004 was voted “Scotland’s most important work of art”—is the prime example. It is dotted with his engraved objects, like half-buried stele from a forgotten civilisation, that make an Arcadia of the place.
The carved words themselves allude to a set of favourite themes: Classical philosophy and poetry (Virgil and Ovid in particular), the French Revolution, the Second World War and fishing boats. In a landscape setting they invoke the Neoclassi- cal gardens of Stourhead and Rousham with a political twist. His words, whether in stone, light tubes or ink, have both heft and humour. He may have frequently quoted his hero, the Jacobin Saint-Just, but he also goaded antipathetical institutions. For example, in a beautifully rendered sheet of lettering he turned Cato the Elder’s anti-Carthage battle cry into something equally impassioned: “Concilium artium delendum est”—“The Arts Council must be destroyed”.
Tate Modern meanwhile has let its curators loose on an unlovely aspect of postwar culture, the performance art that baffles and enrages in equal measure. Nominally A Bigger Splash is about the effect of performance art on painting; in reality it is a rather formless and not entirely coherent overview of some of the bizarreries that burgeoned under its name.
The confusion starts with the title, taken from David Hockney’s swimming-pool painting. The only real link with performance, though, is the BBC documentary that followed the making of the picture. The splash itself is a piece of traditional high illusionism and took two weeks to paint.
More consistent is the use of Jackson Pol- lock’s Summertime: Number 9A, although even here it was really Hans Namuth’s photographs of “Jack the Dripper” at work that most influenced later artists. His balletic movements around the canvas turnedpainting into a drama in which the painter was the most expressive of participants. Yves Klein took this to another level with his “anthropometric” pictures where naked girls doused in blue paint writhed on canvas on the floor to the accompaniment of an orchestra and with a champagne-sipping audience looking on.