Ideas grown from the seeds of revolution



Published Date: 05 April 2005




RISK ***


GARDENING is a national passion. But what are we really doing toiling away in our gardens? If we think it puts us back in touch with nature, the facts don’t bear that out. A lawn that aspires to be a billiard table, or a herbaceous border full of disciplined, exotic plants are far from natural. Indeed, in gardening, we struggle against nature. Her tendency is to freeze or flatten our cherished and cultivated plants - distorted through generations of horticulture from their natural state and often removed vast distances from their original habitat - to replace them with her own familiar army of uncouth natives: couch grass, buttercup and nettle. Adam and Eve were gardeners, but can we hope to get closer to their innocent, natural state through B&Q or the garden centre? 

Another way of looking at it is that, far from getting in touch with nature, in fighting against weeds and weather we are actually subconsciously engaged in externalising the struggle between nature and order which shapes our moral lives and society in general. 

Gardening then becomes a bit like going to church, a study in ethics. That seems remote from any idea you may have of why you spend time pulling weeds, but Little Sparta - Ian Hamilton Finlay’s astonishing garden high up in the Lanarkshire hills - in fact declares itself just such a study in ethics even by its name. Sparta’s legendary military prowess was a product of discipline and rustic simplicity of life. In contrast, the sophisticated luxury of Athens (or Edinburgh, from which Finlay withdrew to cultivate his garden 40 years ago) led to softness and decadence. 

Jean Jacques Rousseau was Finlay’s guide and mentor in this. In contrast to Spartan simplicity, wrote Rousseau, in such decadent societies: "The sciences, letters, and arts... spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which [men] are laden, throttle in them the sentiment of that original freedom for which they seemed born, make them love their slavery, and fashion them into what is called civilised peoples." 

It is a radical point of view, but Finlay is nothing if not radical. Nevertheless, there are gardens and gardens. There are no billiard table lawns at Little Sparta, no borders of exotic flowers. It is, in fact, a landscape garden. Instead of enclosed parterres in geometric patterns proclaiming the human imposition of order on wild nature, the first landscape gardens emulated nature’s informality. 

The ambition was to see the garden as continuous with, not apart from, nature, and to smooth over the join between them. They asserted connection, not separation. The Scots played a precocious part in this. In the late 17th century Sir William Bruce began to design gardens where the focus of house and garden together was some feature in the landscape beyond their confines: at Kinross, the island in Loch Leven; the Bass Rock at Balcaskie

It is a measure of how important gardens are to us that this entailed a profound philosophic shift. It suggested human life, even domestic life, was part of nature and continuous with it, rather than forever in opposition to it. So, it followed, to make sense of life, you looked at humanity in nature and nature in humanity together, not apart. 

This became the Enlightenment project. For Rousseau it already meant gardening was a place to look for the answers, not herbaceous borders, but useful cultivation, and also, crucially, cultivated wilderness, an intermediate place where communication with nature was possible. It was partly because of Rousseau that this also became the business of poetry and art; landscape gardens were often poetic in the references, just as Finlay is a poet and Little Sparta is itself a kind of extended poem. 

Toward the end of Rousseau’s life, at Ermenonville north of Paris, René de Girardin created a landscape garden as a retreat for Rousseau and an informal place for contemplation in rustic simplicity. For the last few months of his life, Rousseau retired there and he was buried there on an island in an ornamental lake. As Rousseau was Finlay’s inspiration, so Little Sparta emulates Ermenonville

This relationship is the subject of The Philosopher’s Garden at GOMA, an exhibition of photographs taken at Ermenonville and Little Sparta by Robin Gillanders. Gillanders’s beautiful photographs of Ermenonville take as their theme Rousseau’s last work, his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. 

The photographs - black and white and four feet square - are beautifully matched to the contemplative mood of the Reveries. They are divided into a series of promenades, or walks. Each picture is matched with great subtlety to an accompanying quotation from each of the ten walks in sequence. 

It is a measure of Finlay’s importance that the connection proposed here takes us back to the central ideas of the Enlightenment and the importance of the Franco-Scottish exchange. There was a vital connection between Rousseau himself and Scottish thought - and personally with Scotland’s greatest radical thinker, David Hume. 

They had in common the idea that the key to human nature is feeling, not reason. If Rousseau owed much in this to Hume, he also turned it independently into a radical critique of society. This had profound political consequences in the French Revolution. And Finlay completes the circle by making an analogy between gardening and the French Revolution. 

Gardeners and revolutionaries alike must cut and prune, even uproot if necessary. As Finlay puts it: "Both the garden style called ‘sentimental’ and the French Revolution grew from Rousseau. The garden trellis and the guillotine are alike entwined with the honeysuckle of the new sensibility." 

All this points to the part that Scottish radical thought played in the cataclysm of the revolution, as it had already done in the American Revolution. 

Taking up these themes as he has done in all his work, Finlay offers us a perspective on our heritage certainly, but he also suggests our gentle passion for gardening may actually be part of it, too. 

If Finlay’s art is radical, it is also highly focused. It forces you to think fresh thoughts in unexpected areas. The same cannot be said of the new exhibition at the CCA, Risk, though it declares its radical intentions in every crowded inch. It is a protest at the whole obnoxious complex of power, money and politics that has given us the Iraq war, the degradation of the environment and the prospect of the whole food chain becoming a capitalist monopoly through the imposition on us of GM foods. Both topics and timing make it a preamble to the protests planned for the G8 summit. 

Art can be highly political. Think of Goya, George Grosz or even the thriving tradition of political caricature in this country. But although there are more than 30 artists taking part in Risk, it is really impossible to identify a single work by a single artist, or even by a group of artists, that rises in a clear voice above the general babble of protest, or that focuses radical thought in a single trenchant image. Art can contribute powerfully to protest, but it does not do so here. And it is downright wrong, not to say self-defeating, to declare in large letters in the foyer: "The economic value of public art is to increase the value of private property". 

Finally, what of Avril Paton, who has a major retrospective at the Mitchell Library? Ten years ago she became an object of enormous popular interest with pictures like Windows in the West. Inspired by Edward Hopper she paints a Glasgow tenement at dusk. The curtains not yet drawn, we can see in. It is a gentle piece of voyeurism. 

She has done it again in a painting called Bedsits, and she has used the same literal realism in a variety of paintings of Glasgow scenes. Like those of the Victorian painter William Powell Frith, the interest is in her observation of the natural diversity in any crowd. They don’t go beyond that, and I am afraid it is better to pass over in silence the abstract "art" pictures that make up the bulk of this show. 

• The Philosopher’s Garden until 8 May; Risk until 14 May; and New Looks until 16 April.


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·       Last Updated: 05 April 2005 10:14 AM

·       Source: The Scotsman

·       Location: Edinburgh