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If it is ever to compete with Tate Modern for popularity and seriousness of purpose, Tate Britain must stop its perverse antagonism to those beloved works by British artists that, in an institution more confident and generous in embracing its cultural position, would form the starting point of its exhibition programme.

Between 2010 and 2011, Tate Modern welcomed over 5m visitors, Tate Britain 1.6m. The disparity is hardly surprising given the lacklustre quality of Millbank’s exhibitions in that period – the embarrassing cartoon show Rude Britannia; a watercolour survey that marginalised Turner and omitted David Hockney. The museum now concludes 2011 with a missed opportunity so glaring that one senses a death-wish.

Sculptor Barry Flanagan is not a household name but his giant bronze cavorting hares – “Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell” in London’s Broadgate, “Nine Foot Hare” at Victoria Plaza, “Small Nijinski Hare” in Cardiff – are the most familiar postwar British sculptures after Henry Moore’s. Occupying the artist from 1982 until his death in 2009, they are joyful, exuberant, instantly comprehensible, gently ironic – mocking the gravitas of the modernist tradition from Epstein to Giacometti, with Washington University’s “Thinker on a Rock” delightfully parodying Rodin – and held in wide public affection. Why then are the hares, apart from two examples crammed ungraciously into a small final room, excluded from Tate’s new Flanagan show?

The period covered by Barry Flanagan: Early Works 1965-1982 has been deliberately chosen to end at the hares, yet the key decision of Flanagan’s career was the volte-face by which he abandoned an informal process of art-making close to arte povera, using humble materials such as hessian and rope, in favour of figurative pieces cast in bronze. Many of his initial supporters thought he had sold out, and the bohemian peripatetic Flanagan, who had until then crossed Europe in a camper van, amused everyone by now driving a Rolls Royce – with trailer attached. Any intelligent exhibition of his work needs to examine what connections, if any, link the two parts of his oeuvre.

Born in 1941, Flanagan belongs to the generation of radical British sculptors who came of age in the 1960s and rejected the medium’s formal and material language. Among them, Richard Long created land art, Gilbert and George turned themselves into “living sculptures”, and Michael Craig-Martin – Flanagan’s direct contemporary, sharing his Irish heritage and an absurdist humour echoing Beckett and Joyce – exhibited a glass of water purporting to be “An Oak Tree”.

Flanagan, though a conceptualist, was always more concerned with the physical world. Tate opens with the works that launched his career in 1966-67, and the pieces they most recall are Carl Andre’s brick floor arrangements of the same year, though Flanagan then did not know these. “ringn ’66” is a mound of sand with an inverted centre. “heap 4”, a pile of canvas forms filled with sand, resembles a load of elongated vegetables. The largest, most memorable work from this epoch is the installation comprising a quartet of tapering canvas-wrapped sand pillars, “4 casb 2 ’67”, a circular linoleum floor decoration, “ringl 1 ’67” and, winding between them a coil of thick rope, “rope (gr 2sp 60) 6 ’67”, acquired by Tate. Of this piece, Flanagan wrote: “One merely causes things to reveal themselves to the sculptural awareness. It is the awareness that develops, not the agents of the sculptural phenomena.”

This openness to chance, the youthful, exultant informality, continued into the 1970s with wigwams draped in cloth, a pile of sand-filled sacks climbing a corner of the gallery, “light on light on sacks”, and a series of wall-hanging, free-falling monochrome works in hessian, of which the best is “shadow catchers ’77/79”. Like many works of minimalist iconoclasm, these were philosophically relevant at the time but always visually unexciting; shown at a stretch here they soon pall.

They do, however, demonstrate an instinct for linearity, playfulness and lightness of touch – all characteristics of the hare sculptures. Clearer ancestors of these – sparked perhaps by an impatience already in the 1970s with the cul-de-sac that was minimalism – are Flanagan’s first carvings in hornton stone, still abstract but with ambivalent figurative allusions, such as the rounded “the stone that covered the hole in the road (the skull)” (1974), the rougher “Lamb/Fish” (1975) and the comic “a nose in repose” (1977-79). At the same time, Flanagan began experimenting with cutting metal and painted steel into delicate spirals, yielding the show’s most lyrical pieces: the glowing “VII 78 the corn’s up”, the dusky blue “VII 78 as night” and “moon thatch” (1978).

The spirals refer to the gidouille, the spiral on the belly of Ubu Roi, the anti-hero created by French writer Alfred Jarry, with whose theory of “pataphysics” – “the science of imaginary solutions” – Flanagan was obsessed all his life. I find this aspect of Flanagan whimsical and irritating, but the metal abstractions that Jarry inspired are fundamental in leading to the hares, for they – and the wiry bronze that followed in 1981, “The Long Man of Wilmington” – are a kind of modernist drawing in space that released Flanagan’s soaring, looping line and imaginative energy.

Matisse and Giacometti come to mind here and from now on, no one could claim Flanagan as remotely a formal innovator. Never mind: in the lanky-limbed, elastic, libidinous, mercurial figure of the hare, this eccentric artist found a new expressive vocabulary, cartoonish enough for the late 20th century but resonant with myth and magic: “the idea of the hare as an alter ego evolved. Once you abstract from the human like that, it opens a window in the mind, it allows your imagination to roam.”

The gilded gesso and painted wooden “leaping hare, embellished, 2/3 jan ‘80” (1980), a small prototype of the animal’s figure stretched out, bounding into space, and the first major bronze, “Large Leaping Hare” (1982), mounted on a steel pyramid, conclude this show, although the Duveen hall boasts a further example, the lofty “Left-Handed Drummer” (1997).

Bold, sly, dejected, but never cute, these jumping, dancing, acrobatic creations demonstrate by the gesture of a limb or the fall of an ear human emotions that by the 1980s had long been banished from sculpture. How canny of Flanagan to find a way of reinjecting human values into the medium; how dim of concept-fixated Tate to miss the point.

‘Barry Flanagan: Early Works 1965-1982’, Tate Britain, London, to January 2. www.tate.org.uk

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