Ian Hamilton Finlay



Not on display

Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925–2006
Sandstone, bronze
Object: 730 × 1020 × 650 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2013


Monument 1991 comprises the bronze casts of three two-gallon watering cans which stand, spouts pointing forwards, on a sandstone plinth that is roughly the height of the body of each can. The watering cans are each inscribed with the name and dates of prominent figures of the French Revolution: ‘M. ROBESPIERRE 1758–1794’, ‘L.-A. SAINT-JUST 1767–1794’ and ‘G. COUTHON 1756–1794’. Monument relates, therefore, to a specific moment in the French Revolution when the three architects of the Revolution’s Committee of Public Safety – Maximilien Robespierre, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just and Georges Couthon – were themselves arrested and executed, bringing to an end the so-called Reign of Terror. This event became known as the Thermidorian Reaction, named for the date that Robespierre and his followers were executed – in the Republican Calendar, 10 Thermidor Year II (28 July 1794). Thermidor is the month of heat in which plants are sustained through watering. The tenth day of Thermidor, the date of the execution, is named ‘Arrosoir’ (the French word for watering can). The imagery of Thermidor is one that much occupied Finlay, given the rich set of metaphors it contains. Originally, the work was given a low granite plinth by the artist, which later changed to the higher sandstone plinth that is now part of the work.

Monument was made as part of the larger group of works known collectively as the ‘Instruments of Revolution’. It was fabricated for Finlay by Werkstatt Kollerschlag in Vienna and was exhibited in 1991 in Kollerschlag, Austria. The following year it was included in the exhibition Ian Hamilton Finlay: Instruments of Revolution and Other Works at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and at Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds.

Tate’s collection holds five other sculptures from the ‘Instruments of Revolution’ group: Ventose 1991 (Tate T12137), Osez 1991 (Tate T12138), Drum 1991 (Tate T12139), Quin Morere 1991 (Tate T12140) and Flute 1991 (Tate T12141). The ‘Instruments of Revolution’ bring together Finlay’s principal preoccupations of the 1980s and 1990s: the French Revolution, neo-classicism, the Enlightenment, the garden, warfare and human conflict. These works utilise visual puns and, combined with their titles and inscriptions, extend and subvert meaning through the interplay of word and object. A related work which shares its garden imagery with Monument is Thermidor 1991 (collection unknown), in which three bronze watering cans are positioned within a bronze wheelbarrow. Earlier works in which Finlay employed watering cans include the artist’s book Thermidor 1989, the front cover of which includes a drawing of a watering can with a revolutionary rosette attached to its spout, the ceramic Arrosoir 1985 (reproduced in Finlay 1987, p.46), in which a watering can carries the name and dates of Saint-Just, and a 1985 print of the same title showing a watering can with a black ribbon attached to its spout carrying the text: ‘The Robespierrists were guillotined on Arrosoir, Watering-can, in Thermidor, the Month of Heat (Republican Calendar, 1792–1806). Babeuf described Robespierre as “the genius in whom resided truly regenerative ideas …”’.

These ‘regenerative ideas’ are at the heart of Finlay’s approach to this theme and go some way to explaining how he fused the epic and pastoral genres, imagining the French Revolution as an epic ‘pastoral whose Virgil was Rousseau’ (quote taken from his series of prints Revolutionary Pursuits 1987, distributed by the Cartier Foundation, Paris in 1987). The historian Stephen Bann has explained:

The Roman poet Virgil was a crucial influence both on the genre of the epic, with his Aeneid and on the genre of the pastoral, with his Georgics. Finlay implies that the philosopher and confessional writer Rousseau, who combined revolutionary political theory with the vivid evocation of both gardens and landscapes, endowed the French revolutionaries with a similar combination of concerns.
(Stephen Bann, unpaginated leaflet accompanying Institute of Contemporary Arts 1992.)

Proof of this fusing together of the epic and the pastoral – in which regeneration can be understood from a social and political perspective as well as in terms of the laws of nature realised in the changing seasons – can be found in the French Revolutionary Calendar, whose names (such as Thermidor) are determined by the country, agriculture and the land rather than the city, politics and the urban environment.

Monument is a testament to the valuable function that the simple watering can has in a garden in the hot, dry months of summer. The inscribed bronze casts of the watering cans also stand as a domesticated memorial or monument to the three men’s death or sacrifice, their blood watering the soil of revolutionary liberty. Such interplay of doubled meanings, and the different regenerative forces they describe, can be found in other works from the ‘Instruments of Revolution’ group. Osez 1991, for instance, is a bronze cast of a garden hoe leaning against a sandstone pile. The hoe is a tool for tilling any garden. The work’s title Osez is a pun on the word for the object itself, but is also a rendering in the original French of the revolutionary slogan ‘Dare!’. There is also a sense of irony; in this context the hoe’s usefulness for weeding seems to allude to the Revolution’s execution first of aristocrats and then – with the Thermidorian Reaction – revolutionary factions. Thermidor 1991, with its three watering cans collected together in a wheelbarrow, presents not just an image of tending and nurturing a garden but also an allegory of the three revolutionaries taken in a cart to execution. From another perspective, Flute 1991, the bronze cast of a German machine gun, is a visual pun that describes both the flute of Virgil (the vents of the gun standing in for the flute’s finger holes) and Saint-Just’s own ivory flute, all of which is suggestive of a pastoral or arcadian equivalence where music, political and social change, and the life of the garden all march to a similar rhythm.

Further reading
Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poursuites Révolutionnaires, exhibition catalogue, Cartier Foundation, Jouy-en-Josas 1987.
Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer, London 1992.
Ian Hamilton Finlay: Instruments of Revolution and Other Works, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1992.

Andrew Wilson
January 2013

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