Eileen Agar RA

1899–1991

Eileen Agar was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but moved to England in 1906. She studied under Leon Underwood at his Brook Green School of Art, and then at the Slade School of Art. From 1928 to 1930 she lived with the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard in Paris, where she befriended Paul Éluard, Ezra Pound and André Breton. In 1933, Agar was given her first solo show at London's Bloomsbury Gallery and, at the suggestion of Henry Moore, joined The London Group, with whom she exhibited her first collages. She exchanged several of these collages with her sometime lover, Paul Nash. The 1930s saw Agar's work become more Surrealist, and in 1936, Herbert Read and Roland Penrose visited Agar in her studio to request that she participate in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, a seminal show that launched Surrealism in Britain. In 1937, Agar holidayed with Leonora Carrington, Man Ray, Henry Moore and others in Cornwall, and then at Mougins, with Picasso, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller and Paul Nash. At the end of this year, Agar was included in Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her work of this period was characterised by a disparate and experimental use of media - from Surrealist oil paintings, photography (notably of anthropomorphic rocks, which are now in the Tate) and small works on paper in which she demonstrates a playful, innovative use of collage. Paul Nash introduced her to the idea of the 'found object', which inspired The Angel of Anarchy, a plaster head on which Agar has added feathers, fabric and diamante stones. This important work has appeared in a number of survey shows on Surrealism, as well as British Sculpture in the 20th Century at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in 1981. It is now in the Tate's permanent collection.  

 

During wartime, Agar continued to work: she featured in Surrealism Today at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1940, and had a solo show at the Redfern Gallery in 1942. Her friend Lee Miller documented the show, and a selection of photographs appeared in British Vogue. She was the subject of a poem by ELT Messens, published in 1944. From the 1950s onwards, Agar's primary output was in painting; a typical example is Poet and His Muse, which was purchased by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1959. In 1960, she painted a portrait of her friend, the poet Dylan Thomas, in very swift, spontaneous brush strokes, in an attempt to tap into the unconscious. This work was sold to the Tate a year later. In 1965, Agar began painting in acrylics, a medium in which she enjoyed trying out new pigments and colour combinations. She had been invited to paint large-scale canvases in preparation for a retrospective at the Commonwealth Institute, London, and this new, quick-drying medium was better suited for the task than oils. Roland Penrose wrote the catalogue essay, and in it remarked how these new acrylic paintings play with perception and illusion: "I find that I am led into deep sensations of time and space in some recent paintings where sharply delineated forms hover in darkness so that the blackness that surrounds them is alive in its own right and others where transparent forms with softer edges merge together creating new volumes and a magic sense of depth, a vortex of colour which carries the eye with rhythmic motion into a realm which transcends our limited field of observation". Agar continued painting while in old age, and acrylic canvases from the '70s and '80s were purchased by a number of public collections; the Government owns Bride of the Sea, of 1979, and Slow Movement (1970) is in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 1985, Agar was included in Whitney Chadwick's seminal book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. She published her autobiography in 1988, and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1990. Agar was the subject of a major retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1999, and more recently at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, and Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. Her work has been included in all the major museum shows on Surrealism, both in the UK and around the world. An early painting from the 1930s is currently on display at Tate Modern, as part of its In the Studio exhibition.

 

The Redfern Gallery represents the Eileen Agar estate.

 

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Eileen Agar RA

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