Moon Rabbits, Leaping Hares, and Emblems of Rebirth in Art

By Elizabeth Choi
As with many depictions of animals in art, the motif of rabbits and hares has a long history rooted in religion and folklore. In both Eastern and Western art history, the rabbit or hare often represents much more than a simple depiction of the animal.

T his is particularly evident in East Asian culture where the Chinese zodiac and lunar calendars are often regarded as integral guides for determining an individual’s family background, future prosperity and even telling of their individual character. Folklore throughout Asia has long held the rabbit as a symbol of rebirth that is commonly taken to represent the moon. Following the lunar calendar, the yearly Mid-Autumn festival brings about stories of the Moon Goddess and her steadfast companion, the noble Moon Rabbit. As such, the small white hare makes its way into many East Asian artworks from carvings dating back to dynastic times to 20th century paintings.

The prolific Taiwanese sculptor Huang Tu-shui, whose woodcarvings single-handedly advanced the fine arts landscape in his home country, is heralded for his prodigious ability to create remarkable depictions of animals and deities through a distinct, naturalistic realism style. Growing up in the commercial hub of what is today’s Taipei Railway Station, Huang’s youth was undoubtedly shaped by his proximity to the area’s abundance of temples and shops selling wares adorned with religious iconography including folk carvings and Buddhist statues. At the peak of his professional artistic career, one of his most notable works included “Rabbit”, a highly praised bronze creation recognized for its skillful portrayal of the animal’s innately peaceful nature and sense of movement.

On the other side of the world, nearly 30 years after Huang’s passing, Barry Flanagan, one of Britain’s most iconic sculptors was also quite taken by the rich history of animals in cultural folklore. In his later works, the Welsh sculptor focused solely on the hare, inspired by the George Ewart Evans book, The Leaping Hare. The 1972 book was a delightfully comprehensive anthropological study of the wild hare, compiling all historical fact and neglected country lore. It unwittingly became a recurring source of inspiration for a majority of Flanagan’s later works.

“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.”
- Barry Flanagan

Imaginative and entertaining, Flanagan’s bronze hares tower but do not intimidate. The sculptor’s bohemian flair drew from an adolescence raised by a family of traveling performers and a deep appreciation for literature which informed his inquisitive approach to the notion of conventions: what makes something what it is.

“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," Flanagan said. "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).

Unlike the austere and abstract nature of his contemporaries in the Minimalist movement, Flanagan was favored for incorporating the element of play into his works, giving his bronze hares a scale which is humorously subverted by a very humanistic pose or stance.

From iconic Balloon Rabbit of Jeff Koons to the demure depictions of white hares in imperial Chinese motifs, rabbits and hares have inspired centuries of art. These small, unassuming creatures take on a great range of meaning across different cultures, from vitality and fertility to longevity and cleverness, and their long history of symbolism in both Eastern and Western art cannot be understated.

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