One of the most popular symbols of Easter, rabbits have been depicted by artists for hundreds of years. Dating back at least as far as the late 1600s, the rabbit used to be a symbol of springtime that connected the religious and the secular. According to History.com, the ‘Easter Bunny’ has its origins in a German tradition in which an egg-laying hare called ‘Osterhase’ brings eggs and gifts to children to celebrate the end of the Lent period (in case you’re wondering, originally eating eggs was not allowed by the church during the Holy Week).
Paradoxically though, these furry cute animals have been portrayed in the arts as both emblems of sexuality (think Playboy Bunnies!) and virginal purity. Frequently depicted beside the Roman goddess of love, desire, fertility and prosperity Venus in antiquity, the rabbit was then represented by artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a symbol of virginity and innocence, often portrayed alongside Virgin Mary.
Still, the most famous portrait of a rabbit is probably Albrecht Dürer’s drawing Young Hare (1502). Deprived of any symbolism and a masterpiece in observation, its impeccable rendering served as a benchmark for centuries thereafter. The work is the Albertina Museum’s prize possession, but it’s not often on display. After a maximum of 10-12 weeks, the Young Hare needs 5 years in dark storage for the paper to rest. It was on view briefly in 2014 after a break of 10 years and will appear again for a very short time in 2018 before it goes back into hiding (sounds almost like a real-life bunny, right?).
Well, what about rabbits in contemporary art? These furry animals have been present in several contemporary works, in a variety of meanings which are still sometimes related to its iconography, albeit loosely. Here are some of our favourites:
Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986)
In 1979 Jeff Koons made Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White, Pink Bunny), the seed for so much of his future work. This sculpture features a flower and a pink bunny that sit on top and in front of four square mirrors. Seven years later, Koons created Rabbit. The switch from the word “bunny” to “rabbit” is intriguing. The bunny is cute and floppy; the rabbit is quick and sharp. The carrot in the rabbit’s paw is wielded like a weapon, and the vinyl shell of the bunny has been replaced by stainless steel, reflecting everything surrounding Rabbit and deflecting any allusions to the sculpture’s interior. (Source: The Broad)
Dieter Roth’s Bunny-dropping-bunny (1968)
The playful and decidedly inedible ‘chocolate’ rabbit titled Bunny-dropping-bunny (Karnickelköttelkarnickel) mimics a chocolate Easter Bunny. However, it is made of rabbit droppings and straw, giving the work a humorous visual onomatopoeic quality. 😝 (Source: MoMA)
Tracey Emin’s Rabbit (2015)
One of Tracey Emin’s great virtues is her extraordinary delicacy. The grace and elegance of her lines capture the unique, untamed character of wild animals such as the rabbit in a very strong and personal manner.
Joseph Beuys’ Chinese Hare Sugar (1974)
Joseph Beuys identified personally with several animals, most notably the rabbit. He always carried its foot or tuft of fur as a talisman, and jokingly cited the pointed shape of his ears as proof of his close relationship with the creature. Beuys found sugar and the rabbit combined in a wrapped lump sugar at Documenta 5 in Kassel (1972). Both were already significant images in his work, and he subsequently produced three Hare Sugar multiples, the first in 1972, American Hare Sugar in 1974, and this work in 1979 from a sweet wrapper found in Shanghai. (Source: Tate)
Paloma Varga Weisz’s Rabbit Man with Egg (2004)
One of the enigmatic characters of Paloma Varga Weisz’s watercolour paintings, Rabbit Man with Egg resembles a scene from a fable in its conflation of myth, mirth and sexual ambivalence.
Sarah Lucas’ Pauline Bunny (1997)
Sarah Lucas stuffed variously coloured pairs of tights with cotton wadding to make ‘bunny girl’ forms, whose limply dangling arms and legs provide a representation of abject femininity, in thrall to the arena of male virtuosity as suggested by the snooker table. Pauline Bunny, in its black stockings, corresponds to the highest value snooker ball. The black stockings are also the most traditionally alluring of the selection of colours, connecting this representation of a woman to the image of a seductress. Any suggestion of power this might carry is subverted by the passivity of the floppy, stuffed body, which is clipped to an office chair, providing an emblem of secretarial submissiveness. The title of the installation, Bunny Gets Snookered, reinforces the reading of disempowerment: to be snookered, in the language of the game of snooker, means to be prevented from scoring. This bunny girl is trapped by her femininity, only to be knocked against her fellow bunnies in a game of masculine skill. (Source: Tate)
Frederick H. K. Henrion’s One Rabbit Has at Least 12 Young in a Year; 45 lbs of Meat (1941)
One of a series of WWII propaganda posters for the British War Office/Ministry of Food, encouraging the British home front to raise rabbits at home on a diet of kitchen scraps… and then eat them. 🙄
Masaya Matsuura’s Vib-Ribbon (1997-99)
Vib-ribbon’s code has been written to take into account the player’s choice of music, and any can be used to set the pace of the game. White lines form sketchy drawings of the environment and a rabbit named Vibri. As Vibri, the player walks along a string-like road filled with obstacles, their frequency generated by the soundtrack. Pressing the correct buttons at the right time will let Vibri pass unharmed; the faster the beat of the song, the quicker the player must react. If the player is continuously unsuccessful, Vibri devolves: she will change from a rabbit to a frog and then to a worm. If the player is successful, she is elevated to a fairy princess. (Source: MoMA)
Would you know any other artworks depicting these cuddly furry Easter favourites? ❤️🐰