We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Flanagan, (James) Barry (1941–2009), artist and sculptor, was born on 11 January 1941 at Furzedown, Fforddlas, Prestatyn, Flintshire, the youngest of three sons and youngest of four children of William Joseph Flanagan, who worked for the film company Warner Brothers in Liverpool, and his wife, Monica, née Mullins. He was of Irish Catholic descent, and always regarded himself as essentially Irish. Between 1949 and 1957 he boarded at the Xaverian schools Foxhunt Manor Preparatory at Waldron and Mayfield College, Mayfield, both in east Sussex. At school his temperament found its happiest expression in craftwork and in the arts. In 1957 he studied architecture at Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts but after a year he transferred to the intermediate sculpture course, being already convinced of his vocation: ‘I was a fully-fledged sculptor from the age of seventeen’, he said in 2005. ‘I stepped right into it and embraced the physical world … I learned my trade in sculpture at Birmingham … I was trained to draw, model, carve and cast’ (‘Barry Flanagan in conversation with Hans Ulrich-Obrist’).

After leaving Birmingham prematurely in 1959 Flanagan, characteristically, took up an itinerant career of short-term habitations and employments, being at times an assistant stonemason (in Devon), baker's assistant, builder's labourer (in Bristol and Montreal), framer and gilder, film set technician, chef (in London), and antique restorer (in Bristol and Gloucestershire). This diversity suited his predilection for mobility and his gift for practical skills and specialized techniques (he called them his ‘recipes’). In 1960 he prospected several art colleges; enjoyable evening classes with Anthony Caro at St Martins School of Art influenced his later choice to study there. In 1962 he settled for a while in Bristol, where on 27 April 1963 he married Susan Mary (Sue) Lewis (1945–2002), a drama student and daughter of Emlyn Evans Lewis, surgeon. They had two daughters, Samantha (b. 1965) and Tara (b. 1967). After a lengthy separation the marriage was dissolved in 1997.

In 1964 Flanagan enrolled on the St Martins two-year vocational sculpture course, in which the teaching, focused on specific works within a broad cross-disciplinary intellectual context, encouraged intensity of creative thought and action. (Visiting lecturers included Alexander Trocchi, Ad Reinhardt, R. D. Laing, and Clement Greenberg.) The extraordinary breadth and depth of his personal visual–artistic culture might be gauged from the range of his aesthetic interests and creative activities in these formative years: architecture and design, film, music (he briefly studied cello), dance (overwhelmed by a Merce Cunningham performance at Sadlers Wells, he went on to devise dance-movement actions), and concrete poetry, whose leading practitioners he met at Better Books (run by Bob Cobbing, the sound-poet) in Charing Cross Road, close to St Martins. At college he collaborated on producing and writing Silāns (‘silence’), a poetry magazine, and in 1965 performed silent and sound works at experimental poetry events. From 1963 he had adopted Alfred Jarry, the anarchistic creator of Ubu Roi, and inventor of ‘pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions’, as a model of poetic behaviour: ‘I'm after elegant solutions’, he wrote; ‘“Solutions” implies problems—most likely imaginary ones’ (‘Statement’, in British Sculpture out of the Sixties).

Flanagan was fortunate in his teachers, Caro and John Latham; his tutor, Philip King, wittily imaginative and generously critical, encouraged his originality. He first came to notice as an original sculptor while still at college. (His first solo exhibition was at the avant-garde Rowan Gallery in 1966.) St Martins was at this time the epicentre of a much-celebrated movement in modernist ‘object sculpture’. Showcased famously at the Whitechapel in 1965 as the ‘New Generation’, this sculpture was constructed of novel materials such as resin and fibre-glass, plate aluminium and painted steel, plastic and painted MDF. Its forms hard-edged abstract and its colours industrial-artificial, its primary aesthetic was found in the intrinsic relations of shape, form, and colour. Reacting critically and creatively to this trend, Flanagan and his contemporaries (a remarkably successful cohort which included Bruce McLean, Gilbert and George, Richard Long, and others) rejected its formalist strictures, and set about producing ‘sculptures’ that featured fugitive actions, the exploitation of natural processes, ‘poor’ materials, performance, photography, and film. An enquiring, ‘conceptual’ attitude was of the essence: their defining moment came in 1969 with the international exhibition, ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Works-Concepts-Processes-Situations-Information—Live in Your Head’.

One of the most original and profound artists of this generation, Flanagan was to prove both radical and conservative. Of his attitude to traditional sculpture—historical and modernist—he later wrote: ‘One does not work out of a reaction against but rather out of affection for something. For the meaning of forms’ (Francblin, ‘Barry Flanagan’). In his earliest works he used unstable and commonplace materials—sand, sacking, rope, cloth, sticks, beams of directed light—whose dispositions, shapes, and forms were determined by their own dynamics and the artist's arbitrary and apparently casual actions. Stitched canvas containers were filled with plaster or sand, ropes were played across the floor, sticks were scattered or stacked, a light was thrown onto a pile of filled sandbags. His titles were often gnomic codes for the materials and colours used, such as aaing j gni aa (1965) and rope gr 2sp 60 (1967); or deadpan descriptions of the action of making or the nature of the piece; or both, such as Line, Pile, Heap, Light on Light on Sacks (all 1967–8); or simply the date of its making. These works were among the most imaginatively innovatory of their time.

During the 1970s Flanagan worked in more traditional materials, ceramic and stone. In the former he coiled, pinched, and squeezed clay into idiosyncratic sculptural versions of traditional pots. In the latter, he made incisions—Ubu-spirals, loops, delicate figurative tracings—into found or quarry-cut fragments that might be stacked precariously or set upon the ground; or he modelled clay into suggestive soft shapes to be carved in enigmatic marmoreal transformations (at enlarged scale) by his much respected craftsmen collaborators at Pietrasanta. These utterly modern, deeply evocative, and expressively personal works in clay and stone at once recalled his great predecessors Brancusi and Miró and reached back in time to touch the prehistoric, the ancient, the classical, the medieval, and the folkloric. Flanagan's intuitions were never far from the magical.

An astounding exhibition at Waddington Galleries in 1981 introduced the bronze menagerie of horses, elephants, dogs, and above all hares, that was to be the major imaginative achievement of the last thirty years of his life, and make him the most internationally successful and popular sculptor since Henry Moore. In 1982 he represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, with an exhibition mounted at the Whitechapel Gallery the following spring. Major public exhibitions followed in Paris (1983), Yorkshire Sculpture Park (1992), Madrid and Nantes (1993–4), New York (1995–6), Liverpool (2000), Recklinghausen and Nice (2002), Dublin (2006), and, posthumously, at Tate Britain, London (2011).

Flanagan's ineffable hares, all ears, eyes, and angles, were immediately recognizable: they pranced, loped, leaped, skipped, and danced in cities all over the world. They assumed the virtues, they struck attitudes: they balanced with acrobatic poise and consummate insouciance on the things of the everyday world, including bells, helmets, anvils, and computers. They were creatures of the spirit, yet magically incarnate, uncannily real. The bronze itself seemed as instinct with animal vitality as Rodin's, though the modelling was actually much freer, not concerned with any anatomical precision in representing what is, in the hare, a hidden musculature: ‘the actual figure—the figure of the hare—is described in the armature’, said Flanagan in 1982 (‘Chronology’, in Barry Flanagan Sculpture, 1982). His sculpture thus accorded closely with his linear graphic gift: Flanagan was a consummate draughtsman and etcher.

During the 1980s and early 1990s Flanagan lived with Renate Widmann, with whom he had two children, Alfred (b. 1986) and Annabelle (b. 1988). In 2006 he described himself as ‘an English speaking itinerant European sculptor’ (Juncosa, Barry Flanagan: Sculpture, 1965–2005), and from the early 1980s he had indeed moved ceaselessly between studios, foundries, and dwelling places in London, New York, and Amsterdam, latterly living between Dublin (he happily became an Irish citizen) and Santa Eulalia, Ibiza, with his partner of many years, Jessica Sturgess. Both places benefited from the gift of significant large sculptures.

Flanagan's thought was profoundly original but elliptical in its courses, which ran in lines as unpredictable as those of the wild hare that became his signature and his self-portrait. Handsome and gracious, he was a man of extraordinary generosity, but he could be disconcertingly capricious and unpredictable. His actions could be both considered and spontaneous, governed by canny intuition and poetic imperatives. His approach to sculpture was allusive and instinctive: ‘I like to model and form, not to construct’, he said (Gooding, ‘Harum Scarum’). He was perhaps the most directly poetic sculptor of his generation. In 1992 he was elected to the Royal Academy and appointed OBE. He died of motor neurone disease in Santa Eulalia, Ibiza, on 31 August 2009, and was survived by Jessica Sturgess and his four children. He left an estate valued at almost €14 million.

Mel Gooding

Sources  

B. Flanagan, ‘Statement’, British sculpture out of the sixties, exhibition catalogue, ICA Nash House, London, 1970 · T. Hilton and M. Compton, essays, Barry Flanagan sculpture, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, British Council, 1982 · C. Francblin, ‘Barry Flanagan: always the unexpected’, Art Press, 186 (Dec 1993) · C. Lampert, essay, Barry Flanagan, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1997 · E. Juncosa, ed., Barry Flanagan: sculpture, 1965–2005, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art and Dublin City Gallery, Dublin, 2006 · ‘B. Flanagan in conversation with H.- U. Obrist’, Barry Flanagan: sculpture, 1965–2005, ed. E. Juncosa, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art and Dublin City Gallery, Dublin, 2006 · M. Gooding, ‘Harum Scarum’, Bonham's Magazine, 10 (spring 2007) · The Guardian (2 Sept 2009) · The Times (3 Sept 2009) · The Independent (4 Sept 2009); (5 Sept 2009) · Irish Times (5 Sept 2009) · New York Times (11 Sept 2009) · Daily Telegraph (15 Sept 2009) · C. Wallis and A. Wilson, eds., Barry Flanagan: early works, 1965–1982 (2011) · Sunday Times (25 Sept 2011) · www.barryflanagan.com, accessed on 5 Sept 2012 · www.waddington-galleries.com/artists/flanagan/bio/, accessed on 5 Sept 2012 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert.

Likenesses  

B. Flanagan, drawings and etchings, 1972–4, repro. in C. Adams, Sixties and seventies: prints and drawings by Barry Flanagan (Mostyn Art Gallery, 1981), 15 · B. Flanagan, charcoal and watercolour on paper, 1981, Waddington Custot Galleries, London; repro. in S. Kelly and E. Lucie-Smith, The self portrait: a modern view (1987), 76 · Snowdon, photographs, 1982, Camera Press, London · J. Lewinski, portraits, photographs, 1983, Bridgeman Art Library, London · C. Barker, portrait, coloured crayon on paper, 1984, NPG, London · Z. Roboz, oils, 1988–92, repro. in Z. Roboz, E. Lucie-Smith, and M. Wykes-Joyce, British art now: a personal view (1993), 73 · E. McCabe, photographs, 2001, Camera Press, London · J. Germain, group portrait, archival inkjet print, 2009, NPG, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£3,378,982: probate, 3 Feb 2012, CGPLA Eng. & Wales