In the Whitechapel’s latest retrospective, Eileen Agar is revealed as an artist of unique imagination, a free spirit whose repertoire looked to the magic of nature for inspiration, writes our contributor Denise Hansen.
Eileen Agar’s life and work is often recounted through her touch points with the Surrealist movement and the prominent male artists she counted among her friends, from André Breton to Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst to Paul Nash. And understandably so, since this was the camaraderie that first secured a platform for her work. But Agar did not herself identify with the label of ‘Surrealist’ which was assigned to her. In fact, at a time when women in art still – and especially so for the Surrealists – meant women as muses, the only precept Agar ever followed was that of her own imaginative and spiritual freedom.
Eileen Agar (b.1899 – d.1991) was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish industrialist father and American mother, the heir to a biscuit company. She grew up surrounded by wealth and recalls her childhood as “full of balloons, hoops and St. Bernard dogs”. In the early 1900s she was sent first to boarding school in England, and then to a finishing school in Paris. Against the wishes of her parents, she started formal training as an artist at the Brook Green School where she met Henry Moore – who later encouraged her to join the London Group – and Cecil Beaton. In 1921, Agar began studies at the Slade School of Fine Art. A few years later, she married fellow Slade student Robin Bartlett, which was her ticket out of a life governed by her parents. Her newfound sense of freedom from family ties lasted throughout her life – but the marriage did not. In 1926 she met her second husband, the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard, with whom she would spend the next fifty years.
Upon finishing at the Slade, Agar destroyed all her paintings to start anew, liberating herself from the chiefly representative practice she had been instructed to follow, which she found stiff and uninspiring. Although her self-portrait from 1927 – which according to Agar was her ‘first’ painting – is figurative, it has a post-impressionist streak; the jade-green and peacock-blue of her dress and tunic fleck her face and neck. And yet this is the most conventional work in the current retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery, which is the largest exhibition on Eileen Agar’s work to date.
A playfulness persists across Agar’s divergent yet distinctive 70-year practice across painting, collage, assemblage, and photography: her work feels ebullient and full of surprises at every turn. One might not notice the little diamonds on the nose of her Angel of Anarchy on the first viewing – the head which lends its name to the exhibition – but they are there to be discovered on the second, third, or fourth. This is work that beckons to new discoveries, both within and without the gallery walls.
As I was ambling through the tall gallery rooms and taking in some 200 objects, from large paintings to tiny painted stones and shells the size, shape, and surface of which, despite being arranged behind glass, seemed to call for touch and being carefully turned over in the palm of one’s hand, I kept thinking of something Ursula K. Le Guin writes in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction:
“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again — if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all.”
Much like an inquisitive magpie, Eileen Agar had an eye for treasures hiding in the rubble, and how she might give them a drastically new reality with just a few, but sedulous, turns of hand. By merging two unlikely objects, or juxtaposing them in new surroundings, magic could happen. In her 1939 work Marine Object, Agar brings together an almost fossilised fragment of an ancient Greek jug with a large starfish and other pieces of flotsam she had collected while beachcombing. Found objects were to Agar “a form of inspired correction, a displacement of the banal by the fertile intervention of chance or coincidence”. While of no interest to her male colleagues, “a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair” never failed to pique Agar’s imagination, and indeed to produce great works of art.
Agar also liked to make objects for special occasions. The exhibition includes a film in which the artist can be seen walking through a busy London street wearing the heavenly Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, pedestrian heads turning in wonder and puzzlement. The hat is constructed on a cork base and adorned with assorted shells, coral, starfish, a large fish bone and other fine jewels. Being both a piece of ‘Surrealist’ art and a unique fashion object, it is now held in the V&A Textiles and Dress Collection.
In 1936, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read visited Agar’s studio and selected several artworks for inclusion in the seminal International Surrealist exhibition. Since she did not call herself a Surrealist, this came as a surprise, even though she had played a crucial role in the introduction of Surrealism to the United Kingdom via Paris where she had lived with Bard, spending her days with the likes of Man Ray, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Gertrude Hermes, Dora Maar, and Lee Miller. As she puts it in her memoir, “One day I was an artist exploring highly personal combinations of form and content, and the next I was calmly informed I was a Surrealist!” After the show, her work continued to be exhibited internationally, always in the context of Surrealism.
Bard and Agar enjoyed a mutually supportive – and open – marriage. She funded and contributed to his literary journal Island. In one of her Island texts, she wrote of “womb-magic, the dominance of female creativity and imagination,” drawing a line between physical and artistic pregnancy, an idea that is boldly explored in the expansive painting Autobiography of an Embryo (1933-34). And this seems just right: Agar’s work presents a magical yet patently natural space where life can be formed; where water energises movement, growth, and re-growth.
While the male Surrealists sought to unleash the unconscious mind by following their dreams, fantasies, and instincts, Agar turned to the sea, to nature, to the ancient world, to the people and the materials around her, and to her own body, making for an oeuvre that celebrates recognition and chance encounters – the perfect post-lockdown reminder that even hermit crabs can shine again.
Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy runs from 19 May – 29 August 2021 and is curated by Laura Smith, Curator, Whitechapel Gallery with Grace Storey, Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery. Click here for more information and to book tickets (concessions for students, seniors and unwaged are available).
Feature image: Photograph of Agar wearing Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1936, Photograph, Private Collection © Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Image.