Ian Hamilton Finlay: Poet, Artist, Revolutionary (4 stars)

Winningly fresh and intiguing approach to celebrated Scottish artist's work

Ian Hamilton Finlay: Poet, Artist, Revolutionary

In celebrating a towering artist who has already achieved plenty of retrospective appreciation, this modestly-sized exhibition in a smaller upstairs room at GoMA takes a winningly fresh and intriguing approach. Much of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work featured references to revolution, mainly as reappropriations of the language and iconography of revolt. This very well-curated selection of prints, concrete texts and in situ installations groups a bunch of them together in a manner which is striking and often highly amusing.

The French Revolution features prominently, not least in the two installations which were placed within these premises when they opened in 1996: ‘The Patriot’s Room 1789, An Idyll’, a peaceful tearoom setting decorated with crocheted hanging revolutionary slogans; and ‘Three Heads’, three sculpted plaster heads in baskets, displayed with the intimated hint that they’re those of Finlay’s antagonists Waldemar Januszczak, Gwyn Headley and Catherine Millet. Alongside them Finlay’s handpainted Robespierre quote reads: ‘We want to substitute morality for egotism, duty for etiquette, integrity for insolence, large-mindedness for vanity, merit for intrigue.’ As far as mission statements go, it’s devastating.

The prints on display go as far as might be reasonably expected towards injecting some overt political commentary into a gallery show, but it’s all done with a light touch. ‘A Panzer Selection’ shows battle tank designs as if they were a chocolate box selection card, and ‘L’Ami du Peuple’ recreates the French Revolutionary publication as an issue of People’s Friend. ‘Personnes Intéressées’ and ‘Two Scythes’ introduce tricky Nazi imagery as inventive graphic constructs and ‘The Medium is the Message’ is a playful response to institutional bureaucracy, its title and the legend ‘Death to Strathclyde Region’ displayed with the outline of a hanging guillotine on a stark black background.

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until Sat 1 Mar 2014

Ian Hamilton Finlay

A major exhibition of prints, cards, booklets and sculpture by poet and visual artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), one of the most remarkable Scottish artists of the 20th century, who weaved together themes from classical culture, European history and modern warfare.


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