Lost Potential – Barry Flanagan: Early Works at Tate Britain

26 Sep

Everyone knows Barry Flanagan – love them or hate them – we’ve all seen one of his bronze hares somewhere or other.  There are certainly enough of them dotted around!

Tate Britain’s latest exhibition deliberately tries to steer clear of the overtly commercial, second half of Flanagan’s career and, instead, concentrates on his early works that are often forgotten or overshadowed.  The exhibition begins at the end of Flanagan’s time at St Martin’s, where he used varied tactile media, such as cloth, felt, clay, plaster and rope, to create sculptures that explored process, material and tradition.  Displayed in a carefully planned yet organically haphazard way, I had to be careful not to catch a stiletto and trip over the materials that trailed on the floor.  His sculptural objects play with basic, raw materials that often use the wall as a support, thereby blurring the boundaries between the two-and three-dimensional.  It is easily evident in this exhibition that Flanagan liked to play although he was sometimes evasive in his method.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Flanagan’s work often defies conventions in unconventional ways.  His pre-sewn canvas shapes are filled with plaster or sand, allowing them to create their own forms during the process.  He let the materials guide him playing with chance, simplicity and shape.  Flanagan, in his early days, was a craftsman with a deep understanding of material; both and then among Celts, for example, have a delicacy and tactility with the authenticity and humility of material hinting at his true personality.

Barry Flanagan, and then among Celts N. ’77,  and then among Celts N.W. ’77, 1977. Own photograph.

He was also a superb draughtsman and some of his drawings are included in the later rooms.  But only the very last room introduces his hares.  The curators decided to curtail the retrospective at 1982 because the large bronzes are already so well-known and accessible.  Instead, they wanted to look at the more private, intimate works of Flanagan’s beginnings.  For me, here lies the problem.  Many of Flanagan’s works are personal and this exhibition does not teach, or tell, us enough about the artist and his inspiration to allow these works to capture our attention.  The wall labels are scant and uninformative.  He was intensely private from a very young age and did not even speak until the age of 7.  Instead, he constructed internal worlds to which only he was privy.  This echoes in his art.  Without knowing Flanagan, we are not privy to the ideas that manifest themselves in his art.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

The show aims to argue a continuity of practice across Flanagan’s oeuvre but, I think, it still leaves his career split very much into two polarised sections.  What unites his works, however, is their lack of pretension; whether his mighty bronzes or his small-scale sand sculptures, his personal touch and often humorous approach brings these pieces down to earth.  The large hare at the end of the exhibition heralded a new phase and the end in more ways than one – the end of Flanagan’s manipulation of materials and the beginning of his obsession with the idea that took off and brought him commercial success.

His early works are so different and have the potential to be interesting, but the exhibition fails to present them in a powerful light.  No, I’m not using a hidden meaning here.  Once again, the awfully low light levels take away any wow-factor the works may otherwise have had and leave a rather bland, unexciting exhibition. For once, Tate seem to have used white paint for the walls but they have managed to give a grisaille effect with the lighting!  The dimness gives the gallery an almost reverential feel which is wrong here.  The works aren’t meant to be deified and admired in this way.  They are light-hearted explorations of craft, showing an exciting artistic progression; they need to be presented in a lively way.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Well lit, Line 3 ’68 could be beautiful if displayed properly but here it looks static.  In fact, the catalogue shows how great this work can look – it’s a shame its potential is lost.

Barry Flanagan, line 3 ’68, 1968. Own photograph.

It is important not to underestimate Flanagan’s stature as an artist and it is interesting to see these works.  So much of the exhibition’s problem (in fact, maybe all of it) is to do with the method of display.  The exhibition is flat and non-descript and does not do justice to these works.  The catalogue, however, does!

As we passed one of the monumental hares ‘running’ along the Duveen Galleries, we too decided we needed to hurry off for a revitalising glass of wine (or two).

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

(Spot the stilettos – due to popular demand, whenever possible, pictures that include ‘the shoes’ will now be appearing at the end of my posts.)

Barry Flanagan: Early Works 1965-1982 is at Tate Britain until 2nd January 2012, www.tate.org.uk

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