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. There, she married a student, burned all of her 'traditional' paintings, and shaved off her hair, before embarking on a new life of self-discovery. From 1928 to 1930 she lived with the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard in Paris, where she befriended Paul Éluard, Ezra Pound and André Breton. Her work of the 1930s is informed by her love of beachcombing, which saw Agar exploit the idea of the 'readymade', by combining the discarded shells, bones and plankton to create playful sculptures and assemblages. A famous example is Marine Object, which comprises a starfish recovered from sea mud; a ram's horn that the artist found whilst in Cumbria; and a Greek amphora bought from a French fisherman. Indeed, Agar's lifestyle enabled many opportunities to hunt materials: in 1937, she holidayed with Leonora Carrington, Man Ray, Henry Moore and others in Cornwall, and later visited Mougins, with Picasso, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller and Paul Nash, her sometime lover. In the assemblage, Fish Circus, is a real starfish, found on the beach near Toulon, which Agar has pinned on with a thumbtack, together with collaged and drawn elements. She exchanged several collages with Paul Nash, and unveiled a selection in shows with The London Group, whom she joined at the suggestion of Henry Moore. A rebellious and playful artist, Agar walked down the streets of London wearing Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, a painted basket topped with pieces of a bone, coral, a lobster and a starfish. Another 'readymade' was the famous rocks at Ploumanach, which Agar encountered for the first time in 1936. She likened them to "prehistoric monsters sleeping on the turf", and the resulting series of haunting black and white photos taken during this visit emphasise the strange, anthropomorphic qualities of the rocks.   

 

Although Agar did not consider herself a Surrealist, in 1936, Herbert Read and Roland Penrose visited 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. Agar was one of the few female artists selected for the exhibition. At the end of this year, Agar was included 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, it was recently described by Tate Britain curator Alex Farquharson as "a Surrealist masterpiece". This important work has since appeared worldwide in a number of major survey shows on Surrealism, as well as British Sculpture in the 20th Century at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in 1981.

 

The uneasy foreboding of Angel of Anarchy seems telling, as Agar fell into a state of inactivity during wartime. Aside from taking part in Surrealism Today at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1940, and a solo show at the Redfern Gallery in 1942 - documented by Lee Miller and illustrated in British Vogue - Agar did not produce much work during this decade. 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 made of the landscape while in Tenerife, but upon returning home, Agar became more experimental with her subject matter, which now incorporated elements of classical art, ancient mythology and sexuality, while also trying out different ways of making pictures. For example, she tended to favour painting during this period, but experimented with 'automatism'. A notable 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. Agar also experimented with another Surrealist technique, of frottage, to create different textures. In other paintings, Agar rejects brushmaking and instead drips and pours enamel paint on to canvas or glass to create a series of abstracted, surrealist imagery. 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 ... there is 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 1970s 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 returned to the rocks of Ploumanach, now reinterpreted in a series of hallucinatory acrylic images, thanks to a heightened palette, jarring colour juxtapositions, and altered perspectives. In this same year, 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. In 2021, the Whitechapel Gallery organised the most comprehensive retrospective yet, which received widespread critical acclaim. 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". The retrospective received a 5-star review from The Spectator's Laura Freeman, and was in the i's 'top ten' shows of 2021. 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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