Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Spirit of the Hare Bounds On

Barry Flanagan's death is a great loss to the art world

Barry Flanagan's death deprives Ireland of a generous artist whose legacy for us stands on the forecourt of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and in the collection of the Municipal Gallery of Art in Parnell Square. Barry's impact, particularly on the city of Dublin during the summer of 2006, was immense, with major works lining O'Connell Street and a wonderful exhibition in the museum grounds and central courtyard. He gave generously and selflessly, starting not long after he moved to Ireland about 10 years ago.

He remained peripatetic. Born in north Wales and educated in Birmingham and London's St Martin's School of Art, he had studios and homes elsewhere in the world and used foundries in other countries for the casting of works. But he made a home here and his intentions, recently discussed with museums, were to add further gifts to what he had already donated. His working methods were seasonal rather than daily, ergonomic rather than ordered. He worked to no deadline, following the progress of his own work, moving between Spain, France, London with physical work in foundries. The poles of existence were Dublin and the Mediterranean. His roots were Irish. His grandfather came from Cork, a shipwright.

He was a personal friend, and it is from that standpoint I choose to write. His death, which was untimely and therefore tragic, represented a loss difficult to measure because the friendship itself was difficult to assess. Indeed, it could be said of Barry that much of what he said was difficult. His style of discussion was elliptical. He released ideas and views very guardedly, like a quartermaster-sergeant delivering ammunition in life's warfare. There were long pauses in conversations. He smiled when he was being most inscrutable.

He was the most individual and stimulating artist I ever met or have known -- since I felt I did know him after a fashion -- and for his dealer, Leslie Waddington, he occupied a quite unique place among a galaxy of star painters and sculptors. He was never easy, but his mind was magnetic and challenging and, to my pleasure, he took a real interest in my thoughts and feelings about art.

Our last contact concerned Jack Yeats. Barry wrote to me at the beginning of this year wanting an inscribed copy of Jack Yeats which I sent via a friend. He referred there to an earlier proposal I had made about his work. He said: "Being somewhat reticent at your suggestion of work on me, I doubt you could get me into any greater trouble than I find myself in; all my own doing. In the hope that times are conducive, may we correspond, given a possibility." There's ellipsis for you!

I had troubles of my own and I failed to follow up on this, never realising what he was facing, and I bitterly regret that. He was already having serious health problems and the story of his last months is hard to bear.

In the wider sense, of knowing him increasingly well during the past 10 years, I think both of us suffered from our solitary dispositions and our expectation that people would understand difficult concepts, ideas and perceptions on the basis of trust, if they had no better way of understanding. I did so with him and he with me.

He lived here for much of that time in a small house in Ballsbridge, moving later to a flat in Pembroke Road. I spent time in the house; and on one occasion we had a long and disjointed conversation in the main room upstairs where there was a large mirror leaning against a wall. There were no pictures, in fact no works of art whatever except a drawing on the wall of a mermaid standing upright, her tail curled above a rock. In her arms she cradled a small hare.

The expression was of tenderness and fantasy. The vitality of the image of the hare remains radiant. The morsel of art evident in the drawing on the wall of mermaid and hare was cryptic, both intellectually and emotionally. He sat in front of it, clutching a huge vase of flowers -- "I love flowers, they are important to me" -- and he was holding back, diverting attention from what is not there anyway, a clue to what he is creating and how he is processing it. Then, quite suddenly, he offers a point of departure, referring back to what he did before the hares. His art was then a radical assault on the nature of sculpture, making the found object -- hemp, wood, stone -- into a bridge between his mind and our eye.

The colour, scale, disposition, were breathtaking in their simplicity; and the lesson -- for all art is a series of lessons, the greatest being both the simplest and the most radical -- affected painting as well as sculpture. Indeed, Flanagan's effect is universal.

What he then invited, in a simple phrase about the hares, was to see them as 'found' in exactly the same way as his 'found' art of the 1960s and 1970s had been a way of making us see afresh, an endlessly repeated process of making us see differently. He stripped sculpture of its pedestal -- the three-dimensional 'frame' -- and along with that, he changed the conventions of admiring and looking. Instead, he invited, persuaded -- in the end forced us -- towards an involvement of spirit and emotion.

An 18th-century Irish bishop once made the profound remark: "A thing is what it is and not another thing". In trying to understand art, one is repeatedly trying to invoke another thing to explain the thing that puzzles us. Barry Flanagan's hares are the thing. They are not another thing, nor like anything else. That is why he and his life's work are so powerfully wonderful.