Barry Flanagan at work in his studio, c.1990s
Image: © Bridgeman Images
Artwork: © The Estate of Barry Flanagan / Bridgeman Images

Instantly recognisable as an example from Barry Flanagan’s celebrated oeuvre, Left Handed Drummer from 1997 is a monumental and richly animated demonstration of the artist’s sculptural practice. A subject that has occupied Flanagan’s imagination for over twenty years, the hare first made its appearance in 1980 with Leaping Hare, a work inspired by the sight of a hare running on the Sussex Downs. This experience stimulated perhaps the most famous and enduring motif, and subsequent series of works, in the artist’s oeuvre. The elongated forms of the present work recalls the earliest Leaping Hares through a sense of energy and motion, yet the theatrical incorporation of the drum and mallet revitalises the motif with anthropomorphising wit and playfulness. Cast in dynamic Rodinesque bronze, Left Handed Drummer elegantly illustrates Flanagan’s ability to balance traditional and imaginative methods and modes in a singular expression of vitality.

“The ears [of a hare] are really able to convey far more than a squint in an eye of a figure, or a grimace on the face of a model.”
Barry Flanagan in conversation with Judith Bumpus in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Barry Flanagan: Prints 1970-1983, 1986, p. 15.

Central to this artistic vernacular is the whimsical and humanlike quality of Flanagan’s hares. Commenting on his bronze sculptures, the artist has articulated a desire to pursue themes that imbue human activity and feeling with greater symbolic power; hence his interest in an animal that has dominated popular mythology and fairytales across cultures and eras. He has stated that he finds animal expressions more motivating than those of people: “The ears [of a hare] are really able to convey far more than a squint in an eye of a figure, or a grimace on the face of a model” (Barry Flanagan in conversation with Judith Bumpus in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Barry Flanagan: Prints 1970-1983, 1986, p. 15). In the present example, the hare’s alert and prominent ears reflect a pervasive sense of joy, as cartoonish spindly legs propel him incessantly forward. This playful pose, with arms raised and marching on hind legs, distorts the trope of classical bronze sculpture as it assumes a stance and size typically reserved for human subjects. Combining the conventional metonymic associations of the hare with the defamiliarising tactics of scale and whimsy, Left Handed Drummer epitomises the distinct balance of the classical and the peculiar for which Flanagan is best known.

Alberto Giacometti, Dog, 1951
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Image: © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
Artwork: © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2020

Perfectly complementing this attitude, Flanagan’s use of bronze as his primary material aligns his work with a long academic sculptural tradition; yet his individual style of manipulating the surface is far from conformist. Opting for expression instead of representation, the rough texture of Left Handed Drummer reveals the artist’s modelling method, in which he builds up slabs of clay to suggest form with minimal refinement. The outcome after casting is the luscious rippling effect of an uneven surface, which creates an illusion that the hare is perpetually in motion owing to shifting angles or changes in lighting. Flanagan believed bronze was best suited to his vision, as the dark, undulating surface reflects what he referred to as the ‘bloom and drama’ of his work; the linear predisposition of his lean and sinewy subjects provided a kinetic tension that animates his sculpture with exuberant vivacity. Left Handed Drummer, a larger-than-life example of this dynamism, perfectly articulates Flanagan’s central concerns as a master of both academic skill and imaginative play.