In her third piece from a self-conceived series, Rochelle Roberts reflects on Eileen Agar’s Angel of Anarchy, 1936-40, a striking and evocative object that embodies current feelings of sadness, inaccessibility and loneliness.
Looking at Eileen Agar’s Angel of Anarchy, thinking about the current situation, the sculpture has taken on a new meaning for me. We are in the time of Coronavirus, unable to see loved ones and friends, unable to go outside for long periods of time, unable to touch. Recently, I was reading Eileen Agar’s autobiography A Look at My Life (Methuen, 1988) and I came across a passage she wrote about her husband Joseph Bard:
Happiness is not something one should long for or search for; happiness is an experience like any other, felt when least expected. It is a feeling of being at one with the world, an assurance that you are on the right track. This is what I felt when I first met Joseph[.]
I sent a screenshot of it to my boyfriend. It felt very significant to me in that moment because I was missing him a lot and that passage felt as though it was speaking directly of him, especially as his name is also Joseph. I haven’t seen him now for four weeks, and although we talk and video call almost every day, there are many times when I wish I could be with him in person. Angel of Anarchy is now a sort of reflection to me of my current situation. Previously, I had seen it as a weird and interesting sculpture on a postcard at Tate Modern. I liked it because of the beautiful silk and feathers. It seemed very strange and surreal to me at the time, because the facial features are quite subtle if you just see an image of it from the front; it could be anything under there. I bought the postcard from the Tate shop, and it became useful because I was doing surrealism for my GCSE art project at the time.
The sculpture comprises of a plaster cast head, modelled on Joseph Bard. It is wrapped up in black and blue embroidered scarfs, African beads and shells, black, pink and blue feathers, and diamante which cover the tip of the nose and top of the lip. It is striking because of its flamboyancy, the mix of different materials and textures. The materials hint at human features but can also be interpreted as other things. Is the blue scarf skin or a blindfold? Are the feathers and beads hair or a headdress?
This Angel of Anarchy was the second version Agar made. The first version (see image below) — which is very different to this one, much less covered up, the face is more recognisably that of Bard, the colours not so bold — was lost after it was displayed at the International Surrealist Exhibition. This second version, was supposed to be “more astounding [and] powerful” (The Art Story). I think Agar achieved this. The first version is beautiful to look at, with its patterned skin, the contrast of the white lace-like pattern on the dark clay, but the heavy-lidded, tired-looking eyes make him seem quite forlorn. Whereas Angel of Anarchy (1936-40) is bolder and more striking. I find it interesting also that the gender of the head is more obscure in this version. It is not so obvious that the head is male and perhaps some of the materials used hint at femininity, such as the feathers and the scarfs.
Artist Kate Davis said that this sculpture is rife with contradictions (Kate Davis, MicroTate 9: Angel of Anarchy in Tate Etc., 1 January 2007), and the seeming gender fluidity of the sculpture is as one of the main contradictions. Art Historian and leading expert on surrealism, Patricia Allmer suggests that Angel of Anarchy ‘enact[s] a man’s becoming-woman’ (Tate), which makes me think of the sculpture as a kind of metamorphosis, or enlightenment, wherein you open yourself up to understand the world and society not merely from one point of view (your own and people like you) but from the point of view of others who are not like you. It’s interesting that the head appears to be blindfolded, as though it is blind to what is going on around it, or blind to the struggles of others. Patricia Allmer suggests that the symbol of the angel enabled women surrealists to challenge the patriarchy and overcome its blindness towards them (Tate).
Davis questioned whether the blindfold is a defiant act against world events (relating these world events to the fact that Agar had already endured one World War and would live through another) or of despair towards an uncertain future (Kate Davis, MicroTate 9: Angel of Anarchy in Tate Etc., 1 January 2007). I think this is particularly significant at this time given that the future does feel uncertain. There was also a passage in Agar’s autobiography, when she was talking about the second World War, and wrote that posters shouted, “Is your journey really necessary?” (Eileen Agar, A Look at My Life), which seemed to me as though it could have been written for now.
For me, the blindfold has been given new significance, not just in its relation to current circumstances in the world at large, but also in my own personal circumstances. This sculpture of Joseph is blinded so he can’t see me, and I can’t see him. The soft feathers, the smooth skin evoke touch. But this sculpture cannot be touched. Even if I wanted to, I could not stroke its head or lift its blindfold. It is an attractive object, with is bright colours but it is isolated, enclosed in a display box. It can be looked at, but it cannot be interacted with.
About Rochelle Roberts
Rochelle Roberts is a writer based in London. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming with Visual Verse, Severine, Eye Flash Poetry, Merak magazine, Streetcake magazine and blood orange. In 2019 her poem, ‘On Being an Angel’, inspired by Francesca Woodman’s photography, was shortlisted for Streetcake magazine’s Experimental Writing Prize. By day, Rochelle works as Assistant Editor for the art publisher Lund Humphries. You can read her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @rochellerart and Instagram @rocheller.