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“Ian Hamilton Finlay: Arcadian Revolutionary and Avant-Gardener” is abuzz with aphorisms, quotations, and various verbal parries.

Imagine yourself strolling through a verdant park, enjoying the pleasant vistas, the richer oxygen, the weird, wrap-around three-dimensionality of it all (so unlike a screen), and then, out of nowhere . . . Zzzzzp. (Ouch!) And a minute later . . . Zzzzzp! (Yeow!) And so on.

Not insects, but words deliver these rousing stings. And their little pricks of poison are felt not on the skin but in that part of the body encrusted with cant and cliché called the brain.

Hello, and thank you, Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Finlay (1925-2006), a Scotsman, is the subject of a small but deeply engaging show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum this summer. Although most of the work is indoors and on framed pieces of paper, it’s advisable — it’s almost inevitable — that, while viewing it, you imagine yourself wandering through a carefully tended neoclassical garden, receiving Finlay’s verbal (but also graphic and sculptural) stings with varying degrees of dismay, pleasure, and irritation.

Gardening was one of Finlay’s abiding obsessions. The others were classical poetry and philosophy (above all Virgil and his “Eclogues”), the French Revolution, World War II, boating, and the sea. A strange mix, on the face of it, but they all combined symphonically in Finlay’s 5-acre garden, the pungently named “Little Sparta,” in the Pentland Hills, smack bang in the center of southern Scotland.

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Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

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