posted on Nov. 21: Can photographer Ian Finlay improve on Poussin’s images of nature?


To do “Poussin over again after Nature” was the oft-quoted aim of
post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne. Ian Hamilton Finlay has turned Cezanne's lofty goal on its head in an exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art.

“Nature Over Again After Poussin” is a collaborative project made up of a compendium of art forms, an exhibition which combines Finlay's photography with poetic text, stone carving, music and landscape gardening.

The “Poussin” referred to in both quotations is, of course, Nicholas Poussin,
the 17th-century painter most often thought of as the founder of French
classical painting. Poussin was the great arbiter of rationalism and in his
landscape painting, applied rules and geometrical forms to nature, in order
to create paintings that were models of unity, order and timelessness.

Cezanne, working in the late 19th century, had become alarmed by the ragged, “momentary” quality of Impressionist landscape painting. His aim, then, was to achieve Poussin's quality of timelessness while retaining the freshness and close links to nature of the Impressionists: “To make of Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art of the Old Masters.”

Both Poussin and Cezanne were, however, starting from the viewpoint of the
painter. Their task, as they saw it, was to apply the rules of art to
improve on raw nature. Finlay's approach is from a very different direction.

Originally a writer of short stories and concrete poetry, Finlay and his
wife, Sue, bought an abandoned hillside farm in Lanarkshire in the southern
regions of Scotland in 1966. Over the next two decades the couple set about
transforming the desolate location into a rural retreat reminiscent of
Alexander Pope's famous garden at Twickenham.

Original farm buildings were converted, through the addition of classicizing elements, into “temples” dedicated to Apollo or Philomen and Baucis and several topographical features such as a “Roman Garden,” a “Temple Pool” and the “Grotto of Dido and Aeneas” were created. In short, in adding these neoclassical improvements to raw nature, Finlay saw himself as actually doing “Nature over again after Poussin.”

But neoclassicism is only one aspect of culture that Finlay highlights. In
addition to the neoclassical monuments, Finlay has strategically placed
simple markers engraved with the familiar initials of various artists
throughout the site, and it is photographs of these tableaux that form the
body of the exhibition. For example, Albrecht Durer's initials have been
engraved on a stone slab beside the “Temple Pool” in a living evocation of
the artist's famous water colour “The Great Piece of Turf.” “Corot” is
inscribed on a column base beside a gentle vista that suggests the rolling
contours of that artist's naturalistic representations of countryside.

The overall effect of the series of photographs — the classical ornamentation, the landscaped gardens and the romantic music — is of an idyllic setting of great serenity and repose. On the other hand, this is an exhibition that pointedly questions our ideas about intervening in and “improving” on nature.

Finlay directs us to ask ourselves: Is it even possible to see nature any more without the cultural overlay provided by centuries of art? Would someone living in Albrecht Altdorfer's time perceive nature in the same way that we do? And if it is a rather absurd notion that artists can take over nature and improve on it, is it an even more laughable idea that Finlay can photograph great artists' conceptions of nature, and improve upon them?

“Nature Over Again After Poussin” is on view until Dec. 17.