Issue Number: 112
As the late Barry Flanagan RA’s retrospective opens at Tate Britain, Simon Wilson recalls an artist who steered a radical course between innovation and tradition
‘Ah yes, the rabbit man’, was the response of a friend of mine, who is also a lifelong Friend of the RA, when I mentioned to him that I was writing about Barry Flanagan, who died in 2009. The ‘rabbits’ are of course hares and Flanagan’s enormously engaging and life-enhancing monuments to these mysterious and mythic creatures ornament and animate public spaces and corporate atria across the world.
Barry Flanagan, 'Leaping Hare Embellished', 1980 Tate © Estate of Barry Flanagan/Courtesy Plubronze Ltd./Tate Photography/Samuel Drake and Lucy Dawkins A notable example in London is Leaping Hare with Crescent and Bell installed at Broadgate in 1988, a gravity-defying construction in which a giant hare seems magically to be leaping across the tip of a crescent moon.
Flanagan’s bronze hares are probably what most readers of this magazine, like my friend, will know him by. From the early 1980s they brought him fame and wealth. But older RA Friends may recall that the huge media storm in 1976 over the Tate’s acquisitions of Minimal and Conceptual art, while focused on Carl Andre’s brick sculpture Equivalent VIII, (the ‘Tate bricks’) did not overlook Flanagan’s work Pile 3 ’68 (1968/85) which aroused almost equal indignation as the Tate ‘blankets’. This work consisted of a pile (typically Flanagan’s title was bluntly factual) of pieces of differently coloured hessian cloth neatly folded and arranged in a rectangular stack, then placed on
a sculpture pedestal.
Pile 3 ’68 brought together in a completely personal way certain key avant-garde preoccupations of the time: with getting away from the traditional precious media of sculpture and exploring the aesthetic possibilities of everyday materials; with making sculpture in a way that responded to the nature of the material and brought out its innate qualities. Flanagan had first seen the potential of the pieces of softly coloured hessian and had then done the natural thing and folded and stacked them. It is characteristic that part of his inspiration was the sight of his wife folding and putting away washing at home: the tabloid taunt of ‘blankets’ was not entirely inapposite, and his work however apparently abstract, always refers to life.
Barry Flanagan, 'Pile 3 ’68', 1968/1985, Tate © Estate of Barry Flanagan/Courtesy Plubronze Ltd. The fascination with exploring materials at this time led artists to set up particular processes or procedures within which the behaviour of the material would determine the ultimate form of the work. Flanagan soon began making sculptures by filling cloth bags, sewn by him, with liquid plaster or sand. Strikingly radical in conception and execution, these works nevertheless express a rich vein of playfulness and fantasy, and of biomorphism – they are entirely abstract yet vividly evoke fundamental forms and processes of life and specifically the imagery of procreation. But Flanagan’s upright forms also have something of the mysterious quality of ancient standing stones and he shared the interest of the counterculture of the 1960s in myth and magic. In all this he can be seen to align with a tradition that goes back to the Surrealism of Miró, seen recently at Tate Modern. Although less minimal than Pile 3 ’68, these works also provoked the philistine. In Cambridge in 1972, one of them, consisting of four upright abstract but figural and perhaps phallic forms, installed on Laundress Green, was found destroyed in Peterhouse College, following the urging of a local priest to ‘blow up revolting art’.
This episode seems to have played a part in Flanagan turning to the traditional and more durable materials of sculpture. He began to carve stone, and in 1979 to work in bronze. But his thematic preoccupations remained the same and his imagery became more specifically representational before it burst into full figuration with the bronze hares.
Endowed with varying symbolism in different cultures, the hare is above all, through its extraordinary mating ritual and its fleetness, intelligence and courage (hares are said to run into approaching fire and leap over it to escape), an emblem of virility and the life force. Flanagan explored both the animal’s character and its anthropomorphic potential, often with zany wit, as in his Thinker on a Rock (1997) with the hare as Rodin’s Thinker, or the giant dancing hares inspired by Nijinsky.
In the 1960s Flanagan made a highly original contribution to developments in art that are still being worked out today. He then became a pioneer of the reaction to conceptualism, the re-engagement of art with traditional materials and themes, and with figuration, that slowly gripped artists through the 1970s, to dominate the international art scene in the 1980s. In the procession of his great bronzes, he almost single-handedly reinvented the tradition of monumental figure sculpture. The Tate Britain show will offer a feast of Flanagan’s compelling art and I strongly recommend hopping, or indeed haring, down there as soon as possible.
Barry Flanagan Early Works 1965-1982 Tate Britain, London, 020 7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk , 27 Sep–2 Jan, 2012