Eileen Agar RA

1899–1991

One of the few women artists to take part in the seminal International Surrealist Exhibition, at London's New Burlington Galleries in 1936, Eileen Agar enjoyed a prolific and illustrious career that spanned seven decades, in which her creative output encompassed drawing, painting, collage, photography and sculpture. During her colourful life and career, Agar studied alongside Henry Moore, befriended Andre Breton, holidayed with Picasso, dated Paul Nash, and married Joseph Bard. Her creativity continued undiminished, and either side of her ninetieth birthday, Agar published an autobiography, and won election to the Royal Academy.

Born in Buenos Aires, Agar moved to England aged seven, and went on to study art the Brook Green School and then at the Slade. In 1928 she moved to Paris with the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard (whom she later married), and befriended Andre Breton, Ezra Pound and Paul Eluard. Agar soon developed a love of beachcombing, and the accumulation of discarded shells, bones and plankton inspired a series of playful and innovative sculptures and assemblages, produced throughout the 1930s. One of her most notable assemblages from this time was Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, a painted basket topped with pieces of a bone, coral, a lobster and a starfish. Captured on film, Agar famously walked along the streets of London wearing this bizarre creation.

Henry Moore, a fellow Brook Green alumni and lifelong friend, encouraged her to join The London Group, with whom she exhibited various works. At the suggestion of Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, Agar participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition, a landmark show that launched Surrealism in Britain. This was followed by inclusion later that year in Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. By the end of the decade, Agar had created one of her most important works, Angel of Anarchy, a blind-folded plaster head on which feathers, fabric and diamante stones have been added. Based on an earlier plaster head, Agar described wanting to make this new work "more powerful, more astonishing, more malign", and indeed, nearly one hundred years since its creation, this remarkable object has lost none of its uncanny power. Commenting on the work recently, Ben Luke has written that in making a man (Joseph Bard) her muse for the sculpture, Agar "subverts the Surrealist gender roleplay". Now in the Tate's permanent collection, it was recently described by Tate Britain curator Alex Farquharson as "a Surrealist masterpiece". This important work has since appeared in a number of major survey shows of Surrealism around the world, as well as British Sculpture in the 20th Century at the Whitechapel Gallery, in 1981. 

Aside from a solo show at the Redfern in 1942, documented by Lee Miller in British Vogue, Agar ceased exhibiting and making work during wartime. A trip to Tenerife in 1953, described by Agar as "a watershed in my life", instantly rekindled her love of art, and in particular, of nature and the sea. Many watercolours were completed in Tenerife, and upon returning home, Agar, perhaps making up for lost time, vowed to embrace new subject matter, incorporating elements of classical art, ancient mythology and sexuality, and to explore new ways of making pictures. Now working primarily as a painter, Agar experimented with Surrealist techniques such as 'automatism', a notable example of which is her portrait of Dylan Thomas, purchased by the Tate soon after completion, in 1960. She became interested, too, in the textural properties of paint, and began dripping and pouring enamel paint onto canvas or onto glass, resulting in a series of beguiling, abstracted imagery. In 1965, Agar turned to the fast-drying medium of acrylics, in which she enjoyed trying out new pigments and colour combinations. Among her most notable acrylic paintings are those inspired by the famous rocks of Ploumanach. Agar had initially documented the rocks in 1936, with a series of haunting black and white photographs that emphasise their strange, anthropomorphic qualities. Some fifty years later, Agar employs heightened colour, jarring colour juxtapositions and altered perspectives to reinterpret the rocks.

Posthumous retrospectives have been held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Pallant House Gallery, and the Jerwood, though none have eclipsed the Whitechapel Gallery's recent effort, in terms of sheer scope and critical acclaim. Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy received a 5-star review from The Spectator's Laura Freeman, and made iNews' 'top ten' shows of 2021. For Laura Cumming, of The Guardian, "this show makes the case for Agar as an underappreciated modernist trailblazer", while the Evening Standard's Ben Luke concludes that the exhibition "evokes an elastic, inquisitive, brilliant mind and a singular artistic voice". In February 2022, it was announced that Agar had been selected for the 59th Venice Biennale. 

 

The Redfern Gallery represents the Eileen Agar estate.

 

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Eileen Agar RA

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