In 1979, Barry Flanagan’s sculptural investigations took a different direction, turning away from the ‘soft-forms’ of the 1960s and 1970s towards bronze casting and modelling. Flanagan employed the seemingly conventional material at a time when the medium was as unexpected as his use of sand, ropes and building materials had been in previous decades. Most importantly, the transition to bronze denoted Flanagan’s inextricable bond to the subject of the hare, as exemplified in The Bowler, conceived in 1990. As a member of the Royal Zoological Society, Flanagan certainly featured other animals in his oeuvre, but the hare remains his most constant motif with which he is now invariably associated. In a typed telegram format, Flanagan chose to elucidate his reasons for choosing the animal as his muse, detailing the seminal moment in which he witnessed a hare dashing across the Sussex Downs:
‘It was a bright icy day, mid morning, with a covering of snow still on the downs. The road, following the flat and straight part at the base of the dome of the down so there was a moat like gully in which this hare ran. Not at any particular speed nor with any intent did it seemingly accompany us. I observed it for sometime and remarked. Then we saw two walkers and their dog descending the gentle bulge. We thought it so funny they were oblivious of the hare, since they might have wanted to catch it I suppose. Some time later I remember Sue and I travelling from Paddington to Chepstow with Emlyn and drawing it on the back of an envelope. We would talk a lot he being a strong liberal’ (B. Flanagan, ‘Why the Hare?’ in C. Preston (ed.), Barry Flanagan, London, Waddington Galleries, 2017, p. 18).
Growing up as a young boy in Wales, Flanagan had heard anecdotes of hares from hunters and poachers that outlined the animal’s unparalleled physicality and courage. Flanagan heard how the hare was the only animal that would run towards fire and leap over it to escape instead of fleeing. He often compared himself to the hare, stating that he only ever ran directly into problems instead of away from them. Upon his discovery of the work The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thompson, he realised that these anecdotes he had once absorbed as a boy rang true. The book solidified Flanagan’s engagement with the hare’s rich and diverse mythological significance. The hare appears repeatedly in the myths and legends of many societies, carrying considerable cross-cultural importance. Flanagan was also inspired by other artists like Joan Miró, who was equally enthused by the sight of a hare darting across a field on a summer’s evening. Miró translated this experience into his surreal piece Landscape (the Hare) in 1927. Similarly, Flanagan’s hares are multifaceted; they are simultaneously pensive, mystical and energetic, communicating a myriad of animated attributes that Flanagan believed the human form was inadequate to express. Thompson insists ‘It ‘The “Hares” spelt the beginning of a completely new phase in the artist’s work, one that continues to the present. Since 1980 Flanagan has been committed to representational work, but all the while testing its limits and his own capacity to re-invent figurative tropes and traditional rhetorical forms’ (J. Thompson, ‘Barry Flanagan: Artisan of Unreason’, in exhibition catalogue, Barry Flanagan, Madrid, Fundación “la Caixa”, 1993).
The Bowler, conceived in 1990 when Flanagan had been creating his hares for just over a decade, emphasises the artist’s fascination with the hare’s dynamic physicality. Flanagan learned of the hare’s mythological associations with fecundity and rejuvenation; the hare is often depicted as the primordial beginning of the Easter festival. Flanagan explored this sense of liveliness and vigour in earlier works, such as Boxing Hare on Anvil (1989) and The Drummer (1989-1990), which privilege motion despite their bronze sculptural forms. In the present work, the hare is captured by the sculptor at the pivotal moment; the animal’s lithe arms are wound up, prepared to bowl the vital shot, its leg is raised and all set to leap forward. Movement and energy are integral to the work - the hare is poised and ready for action. Flanagan himself was very physically active; he was an excellent dancer and a keen sportsman. In The Bowler, Flanagan establishes the hare’s anthropomorphic potential, substituting what could have been a self-portrait for the image of a hare that takes on human characteristics. Flanagan was also an avid fan of cricket, a sport that appears elsewhere in his oeuvre, for example in The Cricketer, conceived in 1989. Flanagan did not only study the game for its strategies, but also for the athletic movements of its most celebrated players such as Courtney Walsh and Michael Holding. In the present work, the hare appropriates these players’ signature bowling techniques in a humorous homage to the sport. Flanagan often used his hares in this way, as vehicles to transmit his sense of humour and connect with his audience through references to popular culture. Works like The Bowler have come to epitomise Flanagan’s unique wit and playfulness, whilst demonstrating the dynamic potential of the bronze material. Flanagan’s hare sculptures have been universally loved and appreciated since their debut, as they imbue the world of contemporary sculpture with an exuberant force of energy.
We are very grateful to the Barry Flanagan estate for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.