Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.

1992 approaches with the promise - and threat - of "European integration". The emphasis is on economic readiness. But are we prepared for deeper adjustments? In terms of human rights, for example, will the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" be replaced by "prove your innocence"?

A phrase detaches itself from a despatch reaching us from Little Sparta: "... you who regard yourselves as exempt from history". PNR readers hardly need reminding that Little Sparta, in more peaceable times known as Stonypath, is Ian Hamilton Finlay's Garden, Garden Temples and home in Lanarkshire. Prominently included in The Oxford Companion to Gardens, it is a clarifying neo-classical experiment where poetry attaches itself to a landscape and a culture which some of us still regard as our own, rooted in the classical world and in our eighteenth century.

The inclusiveness of Finlay's work, in Scotland but also in San Diego, Vienna, Brittany, Otterlo, Eindhoven, Celle near Florence and elsewhere - Gardens and other environments - is remote from current fashions. Finlay is no Romantic. He's not a Nationalist. He is a Revolutionary whose insistence on the natural connection between language and the things it names, on cultural continuities and precise definitions, brought him into conflict with the literary community during the Fulcrum Affair, with social and artistic institutions in the Garden Temple dispute, and now the broadest conflict of all, with those who seek to appropriate history in an Inquisitorial spirit. The war is European, the theatre is France.

In April 1987 Finlay exhibited work at Arc. Since then a campaign of vilification has been waged against him in sections of the French art press. In 1987 Finlay exhibited four times in France, but it was only when the work Osso (which will be included in the opening of the new Tate Gallery in Liverpool) appeared that the campaign began. Osso is Italian for bone. "In the first place," the catalogue entry reads, "we have nature in its primary form - great fragments of marble which are also the 'bones' of a future skeleton. Inscribing one fragment with the SS symbol as a stroke of lightning used by the German army, Finlay wishes to point out the element of terror and disquiet which is inseparable from nature in its pure state, devoid of any redemption." The exhibition also included an explanatory text on the use of the SS-rune, referring to the "notorious Nazi-German organisation".

Over a year ago Catherine Millet, editor of the Paris magazine Art Press, decided to present the work to her readers as evidence of "Nazi sympathies". Her colleague Myriam Salomon then linked Finlay with the Barbie trial. Art Press alleged many things, returning again and again to the charge of anti-Semitism. Special horror was reserved for the fact that Finlay had corresponded with the architect Albert Speer. It did not matter that the letters had been about the garden that Speer had made in Spandau and that Finlay produced a study of it with the artist Ian Gardner and the late J.F. Hendry. Art Press drew only sinister conclusions, for it is illicit to communicate about the place of neo-classicism in this century with anyone whom history has stained.

Finlay was advised by the British Council and others to remain silent for a year. Invited by the French government, he was working on a collaboration (the very word was to tell against him) with the landscape artist Alexander Chemetoff for the Versailles Bicentenary project, to mark the anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In a letter to The Scotsman, Douglas Hall described the commission as "probably the most conspicuous tribute ever paid to a Scots artist by a foreign government and the most public affirmation ever that Finlay's works constitute a poetic comment on history that is internationally valid". His advisers feared that debate might put at risk this British contribution to the occasion.

Art Press found a valuable ally in the Canadian Jonathan Hirschfield (who sought, and received, Finlay's support when he was to be deported from France). According to a letter from Dominique Bozo of the French Ministry of Culture, Hirschfield mistranslated and fragmented private letters he had received from Finlay and circulated them in a deliberate attempt to discredit Finlay and destroy the Versailles project. Bozo acknowledges that Hirschfield knew the innocence of the correspondence and was producing what was, in effect, a forgery. The plot of this artistic cabal was, as Bozo goes on to acknowledge, to exploit the Jewish question and the wider context of controversy about the Occupation. What is ironic is that the Ministry of Culture, having invited Finlay to make the work - the only work of a permanent nature accepted for the Bicentenary, which was to have been opened by the President of the Republic - did not support the artist but bowed to pressures from an articulate little group whose actions the Ministry itself recognised as a plot. In the run-up to the recent elections, the matter was too delicate for truth to have much bearing on policy.

Last autumn the film makers Chris Dercon and Jeff Cornelis visited Little Sparta on behalf of Belgian Radio and Television and interviewed Finlay. The programme was ostensibly to be descriptive, but the producers came with the intention of abetting the Art Press campaign against him. The chief evidence they could find was the presence of a sten gun. They took the sten gun, which played such a conspicuous part in the liberation of Europe, and which was to be used in the work Four Kings for the Republic, as suggesting Nazi sympathies. They filmed their own jack-boots to add spice to their account. They ignored the pastoral, Virgilian, Rousseauian and lyrical elements in which the Garden abounds. Finlay's classicism (and Finlay is not the first to suffer in this reductive way) was portrayed as a disguise for Nazism.

On 25 March 1988 Michel Blum of the League of Human Rights, Paris, appeared on an influential Europe 1 radio programme with Catherine Millet and, in an extended discussion at which Finlay was unrepresented, added institutional weight to the attacks. The picture of Finlay and his work which emerged was an invention decked out with Nazi memorabilia planted, as it were, all over the Garden, which none of the speakers had ever visited. Taken with the Hirschfield forgeries, the model for this orchestrated defamation was the Moscow show trials. Blum has refused to answer questions as to whether he had seen "Osso" or read the catalogue or knew anything about Finlay and his work.

Le Monde and other papers carried articles. Only the Communist press supported the artist. Later on 25 March François Leotard, Minister of Culture and Communication in the Chirac government, issued a press release cancelling Finlay's Versailles commission. This gesture not only deprived the artist of a substantial site on which he had invested considerable time and energy. It seemed to accept the charges against him, though he was at no stage contacted by the minister and learned of the decision in the Press. The artist was a sacrifice on the altar of the French election. A source close to the Minister said that a massive movement had developed among intellectuals and media people against Finlay. In Britain, the Guardian gleefully reported the French calumnies. Three days later they carried an oblique apology.

There were protests in Britain. Sir Alan Bowness, director of the Tate, headed a list of curators, gallery directors, artists and writers who backed the delegation that visited the French Embassy in London to protest the Minister's peremptory action. Finlay's Euro-MP has taken up the case. Finlay has been cleared of the charges levelled against him, but the commission has not been restored to him, and Art Press continues to repeat them. The pitch has stuck. When I set out to discuss Finlay's projects with my students, one of them was shocked that I should talk coolly about the work of "a known Fascist". The discussion that was to have opened out on questions of neo-classicism had to be postponed.

In a triumphalist dismissal of Finlay in Galeries magazine, Yves Hayat (who denounces himself as a one-time "accomplice" of Finlay's and thanks Art Press for revealing the real situation to him) urges the international artistic community to turn its back on the aberrant Scot, leaving him confined in his own prison (apparently an allusion to the illness which makes it impossible for Finlay to travel away from Little Sparta). He too manages to link Finlay with Nazi atrocities. The vocabulary has changed, but the spirit of Occupation is again abroad in France. Anti-Semitism has various faces: here it is manifest in the language of those who use the holocaust for their own ends without regard for truth. In a letter to Michel Blum, remarkable for its restraint, Finlay wrote: "The tragic deaths of six million Jews forty years ago does not provide, as you seem to suppose, any excuse for inhumanity now."

Finlay is a victim of his own independence, of the necessary clarity of his art, of the insistent simplicity of his good-faith and his belief that reason and dialogue are still properties of our artistic and political culture. He is in a sense our greatest Naive, for despite the sophistication of his works, their impeccable finish, his wide learning, his verbal-visual puns and startling juxtapositions, his art is simple despite its scale, with the inexhaustible simplicity of its joyful convictions, its optimism and its sense of truth. It is hardly surprising that Finlay sees the naked monarchs of ideology, vested interest and propagandist culture for what they are. Like the child who pointed a finger at the naked king, he expects us to take note and, having done so, to act as witnesses to what we have seen. His art has remained uncorrupted by the battles he has had to wage. But this latest conflict will have serious consequences for his art and his life. I do not think it fanciful to say that our response to it will have consequences for art and intellectual life at large. 1992 has some of the colouring of 1984.

This item is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image