'The great bronze hares which Barry Flanagan has been producing since the 1980s are one of the most personal and recognisable artistic endeavours of the second half of this century. Spectacular in size, bitingly ironic and bold, as well as terribly individualistic, they are totally unlike what we normally see in museums and galleries around the world' (E. Juncosa, (intro.), exhibition catalogue, Barry Flanagan, London, Waddington Galleries, 1994).
Nijinski Hare, 1986, is one of Barry Flanagan’s most iconic and monumental sculptures, which typified his figurative work from 1979 onwards. Regarded as Flanagan’s most recognisable motif, the hare has become synonymous with his artistic practice, as important as the reclining figure for Henry Moore or the attenuated man for Alberto Giacometti. Inspired by his memory of a hare that he recalled bounding majestically across the Sussex Downs in 1979, Flanagan began to look to a more figurative aesthetic, which moved away from his conceptual works of the 1960s. Leaving behind his more unconventional materials, such as sand and rope, Flanagan began to work in bronze, delineating a series of animal sculptures in this material, such as horses, elephants, dogs and most prolifically, the hare, which he first introduced into his oeuvre with Leaping Hare in 1979. Flanagan first exhibited his bronze hares at Waddington Galleries in 1981, and again a year later in 1982, when he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Here he included a number of his hare works, such as Hare and Bell, Leaping Hare and Cricketer, all conceived in 1981, propelling his work onto an international platform.
One of the most celebrated qualities of Flanagan’s hare sculptures is their wonderful ability to imbue a sense of wit, humour and playfulness, with the artist often manipulating their anthropomorphic characters into sporting roles as they wrestle, box or dance. This can be seen to dramatic effect in Nijinski Hare, 1986, which is based on the Polish-born Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), who became known as the most celebrated male dancer of the early 1900s and most beloved member of the Ballet Russes, famed for his depth of characterisation and seemingly gravity-defying leaps. Other versions include Mirror Nijinski, 1992, Baby Elephant, 1984, where the hare is poised on an elephant's head and Nijinski Hare, 1996, where the bronze is over 200 inches high. Here Flanagan draws on the prowess of Nijinsky, modelling his hare into a lean and sinuous form, with his left leg raised and arms stretched out, which gives the impression that his is mid-dance. The drama of the pose and the diagonal lines the outstretched limbs create give the work a wonderful sense of dynamism and animation, which seem to flow through the work, imbuing a sense of motion in Flanagan’s Nijinski Hare. Instead of a rigidity, which can be found in bronze sculptures, there is a sense of unbound freedom and vitality, which are also associated with the figure of the hare. This celebration of the hare and its qualities of liberty are echoed by Paul Levy, who stated, ‘nothing is more free, vital, spontaneous and alive – from Aesop’s hare outrun by the tortoise to Bugs Bunny – than a capering hare. In France and most of Central Europe, it is the hare that lays eggs at Easter and so promises renewal. In fact, Flanagan’s hares do not carry much of this historic symbolic freight; they simply frolic freely and expressively. They don’t symbolise life, they live it’ (P. Levy, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Barry Flanagan: Linear Sculptures in Bronze and Stone Carvings, London, Waddington Galleries, 2004).
One of Flanagan’s successes was his ability to relate his hares to the human form, imbuing his animal sculptures with humanistic expressions and characteristics. Flanagan explained, ‘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 surrogate or as a vehicle to entertain in a way. The abstract realm that sculpture somehow demands is a very awkward way to work, so I abstract myself from the human figure, choosing the hare to behave as a human occasionally’ (B. Flanagan, quoted in E. Juncosa (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Barry Flanagan: Sculptures 1965-2005, Dublin, Museum of Art and City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, 2006, p. 65). By choosing his hare to behave as a ‘human’, Flanagan transcends the constraints of academicism, freeing his work from immediate sentiment or sexuality, allowing his hares to become both a personification of, and a symbol for, humanity. Tim Hilton explains, ‘The hare is used to make a connection between the particular and the numinous. It can be thought of as personal, or a person: or as a symbol for a person; or a symbol for some universal principle’ (T. Hilton, ‘Less a slave of other people’s thinking…’, in exhibition catalogue, Barry Flanagan Sculpture, London, British Council, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1983, p. 14).
What was of fundamental significance to Flanagan was the rich mythology of the hare. In 1979 Flanagan discovered the book The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thompson, which explored the mythological attributes of the hare throughout history, listing the transcultural and historically symbolic implications of the animal. It told of the hare’s connotations to fertility, liberty, cleverness, deceit and triumph, recording that in Egyptian mythology the hieroglyph ‘Wn’, represented by a hare on top of a single blue-green ripple, meant to ‘exist’, while in Chinese tradition the Moon Hare holds a pestle and mortar, in which it mixes an elixir of immortality. The role of ‘The Hare as Trickster’, the title of one of Ewart’s chapters, found particular resonance with the artist who delighted in the mercurial and mischievous attributes of the hare, as represented in Nijinski Hare. Michael Compton explains that by drawing on these ancient symbols Flanagan found a deeper connection not only with his subject but with his audience, he stated, ‘While he frequently draws on or refers to the more contemporary conventions in art, the effect of his work is to touch the most basic and ancient, physiological and psychological resonances in his viewers. His works slump, balance and dance in ways that we recognise profoundly within ourselves’ (M. Compton, ‘A Developing Practice’, in exhibition catalogue, Barry Flanagan: Recent Sculpture, New York, Pace Gallery, 1983, p. 16).
We are very grateful to Jo Melvin in her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.