Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tate Britain, London

Suspended from chains against a wall of the Duveen Galleries, six fragments of Bath stone hang together to form a frieze chiselled with words from a speech by French revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just: “The world has been empty since the Romans”. On a parade of classical columns, Finlay’s “A Wartime Garden”, images of warfare are juxtaposed with quotations from pastoral texts by the ancient philosopher Plotinus, Hegel and Novalis. In “Flute”, a machine gun evokes Saint-Just’s ivory flute and also Virgil’s – Finlay noted that Saint-Just’s life was “a duet between the blade and the flute”. So perhaps was his own: literature, classicism and revolution were the obsessive themes dominating his truly original oeuvre, which began with concrete poetry and culminated in his garden at Little Sparta, in Edinburgh – a Gesamtkunstwerk of sculpture, poems and natural elements.

How marvellous, six years after Finlay’s death, to have a chance to explore his work in London through this display of 24 pieces in wood, neon – “Je vous salue, Marat”, in the colours of the French tricolor – bronze, stone, and on paper. It shows how his early sculpture evolved out of his writing, using a range of materials to convey a poetic image, just as concrete poetry depends on typography and layout as well as words and rhythm: thus “Starlit Waters” is a wooden sculpture covered in a yellow net, referring at once to fishing boats and the star-studded night sky.

Boats – “Lead Us”, “Inscribed Glass Floats and Nets” – are a recurring motif, redolent of Finlay’s Scottish heritage (born in the Bahamas but growing up in Scotland, he said his first memory was lying on the deck of a schooner), of the classical world, and also evoking both seascape idylls and naval conflict. That contradictory impulse of war and peace threads throughout Finlay’s art, which is conceptual yet satisfyingly formal too in its concern with shapes, textures, colours, and their relationship to words: he described himself as “a wee, old-fashioned poet”.

Until February 17, www.tate.org.uk

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