Barry Flanagan (U.K 1941-2009) is widely recognized as one of Britain’s preeminent sculptors, known for his distinctive use of the hare and other animals.
Flanagan’s practice is deeply rooted in the theory of Pataphysics, a conceptual principle which prompted the Dadaist and Surrealist movements—a fascination he shared with Pablo Picasso. Characterised by the illogical and nonsensical, the philosophy of Pataphysics was intended to be a parody of modern science, resisting clear definition and embracing the imaginary realm. It has been defined as ‘the science of imaginary solutions’.
The ethos of this theory is clear in the playfulness of Flanagan’s approach to the hare, which is a mainstay figure from the latter part of his career. The hare became a motif through which Flanagan challenged conventional notions of heroic sculpture through wit, humour, subject matter, and scale—allowing the small to become large, the heavy to appear light and the incongruous to become the norm.
In his bronzes, anthropomorphic hares engage in a variety of playful and spirited activities; they bound, balance, dance, play music and in the case of Thinker at Rock Cross (1997), contemplate. Sitting larger than life, posed with chin on paw, this work can be read as an irreverent and witty response to Rodin’s The Thinker (1880), an iconic work that has become a universal symbol of philosophical reflection.
The earliest work in the exhibition is from 1984, Baby Elephant, which features the whimsical combination of Flanagan’s infamous hare in a mid-pirouette stance upon a baby elephants head. The elephant was a motif used by Surrealists such as Salvador Dali and offers a form most contradictory to the hare’s dainty lightness. This is amplified by the static pose of the broad and stoic elephant, all four legs secured atop its plinth, compared to the deft movement of the spindly, spinning hare, balancing only upon one leg.
This collection of works exemplifies Flanagan’s mastery in the subtle art of the contrary. It displays his longstanding devotion to the hare, the wider animal kingdom, and to the bronze medium. Flanagan was a member of the Royal Academy of Art and Order of the British Empire. His work is held in numerous major collections including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Tate Gallery, and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, France.
‘I find that the hare is a rich and expressive form that can carry the conventions of the cartoon and the attributes of the human into the animal world. So I use the hare as a vehicle to entertain. I abstract from the human figure, choosing the hare to behave as a human occasionally’ (Enrique Juncosa, Barry Flanagan Sculpture 1965-2005, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2006, p.65).