Summary of Eileen Agar
Eileen Agar has, like many women artists, sometimes been defined by the (male) company she kept rather than her own creative output, her biography peppered with references to the great and good of modern art and literature, from Pablo Picasso to Dylan Thomas. But she was, in fact, one of the most adventurous and influential artists of the Surrealist movement in Britain, working with a prolific energy which sustained her into her late eighties. Agar's practice was diverse, moving freely through painting, photography, collage and sculpture, but was bound together by an emphasis on the germinal power of imagination, and by a love of natural and organic forms. Her memoir, A Look at My Life (1988), published shortly before her death, provided vivid insights into the lost bohemian enclaves of pre-war Paris and London, and ensured that Agar's work continued to be discussed and displayed after her death.
- Eileen Agar was a significant figure in ensuring the spread of the Surrealist movement from Paris to Britain during the 1930s. She was the only British woman to be represented in the ground-breaking 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, a show which ensured her fame, and which showcased a style that brought together the Surrealists' emphasis on visualizing the subconscious with a uniquely English, aristocratic kind of eccentricity.
- Agar was one of a small but notable group of women attached to the Surrealist movement, also including - amongst British artists - the painter Ithell Colquhoun, the writer and artist Leonora Carrington, and the performer Sheila Legge. Artists such as Agar were able to use the Surrealist emphasis on imaginative freedom to envision worlds where gender boundaries were fluid, and where the realities of patriarchal society were less rigorously enforced.
- With works such as Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, Agar brought Surrealist sensibilities to the world of fashion design, as Salvador Dalí had done with his jewelry and theatre costumes. Recognized late in her life for her experiments in this area, Agar was invited to model for the Japanese designer Issey Miyake; throughout her career, she had presented her body as the canvas for certain of her own works. In this sense, she was a trailblazer for the idea, now associated with Performance Art, that one's own life might constitute an ongoing process of creative expression.
Important Art by Eileen Agar
Originally named Flying Pillar when it was exhibited in a retrospective show in 1964, the main feature of this painting is a strange, semi-anthropomorphic column formed from red and white stripes, floating above a metal bridge. To the right is a loose depiction of Notre Dame Cathedral, and a fleur-de-lis symbol. This work was created during Agar's time in Paris, following her interaction with figures associated with the Surrealist movement such as André Breton and Paul Éluard.
Agar later described Three Symbols as her "first attempt at an imaginative approach to painting", and we can certainly sense the influence of Surrealism on the ambiguous but symbolically allusive compositional elements. The "three symbols" tie together references to a range of cultures and religions, suggesting an attempt to access a kind of storehouse of universal images: the pillar is a reference to Greco-Roman culture, the cathedral to the medieval Christian Gothic, and the bridge, with its Eiffel-esque cross-hatches, a homage to the French architect's Garabit Viaduct, and a symbol of modernity. The use of a trio of compositional elements implies an underlying reference to the holy trinity.
This is a work that stands at the forefront of British Surrealism, painted five years before the poet David Gascoyne penned his "First English Surrealist Manifesto" (1935), for example. It is also work of personal significance, representing Agar's attempt to strike out in a new artistic direction which was only unconsciously configured by Surrealism. She later wrote of this piece that "although the result was in some ways surreal, it was not done with that intention. However Surrealism was in the air, for painters and poets in France, and later in England, were kissing that sleeping beauty troubled by nightmares; and it was the kiss of life that they gave."
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Precious Stones is a collage work, featuring a silhouette of a male face in profile pasted onto another white sheet of paper, framed in turn by a third sheet, which forms a red border around the image. The silhouette is cut from a book on gemstones, and the grid-like arrangement of numbered stones jars with the compositional arrangement implied by the portrait. As the writer Michel Remy notes, "what is striking is the contrast between the strict arrangement of stones - as in all classificatory books - printed with their numbers, and the almost arbitrary outline of the face which cuts into the established, orderly arrangement of the stones, five stones being reduced to fragments by the scissors."
Agar's Surrealist tendencies were often expressed through her collages, and this is a good example of her work in that format. It is also one of her first pieces to include the image of a head and torso in side-profile, which would become a recurring motif in her work. In this case, the figure is partly modelled on her future husband Joseph Bard, whose hobby was collecting gemstones. But Agar was also fascinated by the likenesses found on ancient coins, and the slightly naïve rendering of the silhouette suggests an homage to that style of embossed portraiture.
At a deeper level, Agar's canvases often became sites for contemplation on the complexities of her aesthetic sensibilities, and this work is perhaps intended to reflect the struggle between her sense of the value of order and tradition and her interest in rendering living organic forms through her work, and thus to break away from tradition. As Remy puts it, "[a] kind of reciprocal defiance [...] emerges between the laws of order and the laws of the body, between the inorganic and the mineral on the one hand and the organic and the human on the other hand."
Collage on paper - Leeds Art Gallery, UK
Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse
Eileen's Agar's ceremonial hat is formed from a circular cork basket painted blue, topped with various found objects including natural debris with a strongly maritime theme: lobster shell, fish bones, and coral. This is one of various works that Agar created throughout her life in which the principles of Surrealist composition are applied beyond the canvas, to items of clothing or applied design. It entered the public's consciousness when Agar wore it during an interview with the fashion reporter James Laver on the 1948 television show The Eye of The Artist, and became more famous when Agar posed in it for a well-known portrait as an elderly woman. In this sense, Ceremonial Hat represents something of a 'rediscovered' work, having originally been created the year of Agar's breakthrough showing in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.
This work both applies the principles of Surrealist bricolage to fashion design, and overruns the conceptual and formal limits of fashion design through that very process; so that the hat becomes something other than, or more than, just a hat. As Michael Remy puts it, the work shows "how a hat loses its [...] utilitarian meaning - that is, to be worn for protection or fashionable appearance - or rather how a hat subordinates that meaning to what one eats ('I'll eat my hat'!), thus proclaiming in a sense it's impossible but wished-for edibility; in other words, how reality can be exceeded by itself and deprived of its conventional limits through processes of accretion, contradiction and condensation."
Despite its transgressive qualities, Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse stands as one of the iconic items of Surrealist fashion design, alongside Dalí's broaches and theatrical costumes, for example. It was also a personally significant work for Agar - as suggested by her preference for wearing it in interviews and photo-shoots - partly an homage to the eccentric and grandiose tastes of her mother, a keen hat-wearer.
Mixed media including cork, paint, lobster shell, fish bones, coral and artificial flowers - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Angel of Anarchy
Angel of Anarchy is a sculpture formed from a cylindrical plaster base and a 'head' wrapped in various flamboyant materials, including black and green feathers, multicolored scarves, beads and shells. The work shown here is a reproduction of an earlier work created in 1938 for the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Amsterdam, lost during its return trip to Britain. Agar later recalled that the remade version was intended to be "more astounding, powerful (and forgetting about a portrait) more malign" than the original.
This piece is loosely modelled on the head of Agar's partner, Joseph Bard, whom she married the year the second sculpture was made, but the feminine connotations of the materials wrapped around the face suggest an implicit commentary on gender divisions. The curator and critic Patricia Allmer, who gave this work a central place in the 2009 European exhibition Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism, argues that it addresses issues of gender fluidity by "enacting a man's becoming-woman", noting that "the angel is one of the symbols of women surrealists", standing for qualities of "hybridity and becoming". As such, the work "challenge[s] patriarchy' by "overcom[ing] its own blindness towards women".
Given the traditionally masculine connotations of Surrealist theory, this is indeed a vital work in the history of feminist Surrealism. By another interpretation, however, the piece is modelled on the headgear worn by Spanish Anarchist fighters during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a conflict still ongoing when the first head was made. Thus, although Agar's work was never overtly anti-fascist - something which kept her at a distance from other Surrealists, many of whom were more vocal in their opposition to right-wing government - the Angel of Anarchy may represent a rare and subtle expression of political solidarity within her oeuvre.
Plaster cast with mixed media - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Head of Dylan Thomas
This work utilizes the profile-portrait style already familiar from early works such as Precious Stones, though in this case the subject is the neo-Romantic poet Dylan Thomas, a friend of the artist who died in 1953. His face is loosely rendered in white flowing lines, on a canvas filled with abstract motifs, and what seem to be drip-painted features.
Dylan Thomas was an important figure in literary Surrealism in Britain in the 1930s-40s, and was part of the circle of artists and literary figures in which Agar moved at that time. The free compositional style perhaps pays homage to the free spirit of the man himself, but also reflects the work's composition based on quick sketches made of Thomas during a dinner party in the 1930s. Aspects of the piece, particularly the wild background motifs, may also indicate Agar's experimentation with the Surrealist technique of automatism, whereby images are created on the canvas without any predetermined intention or thought. In general, however, Agar was uncomfortable with this approach, producing few works in this style. She later said: "I am suspicious about the whole idea of working from dreams. I find that daytime dreams can be inspiring, but not night-time ones - they are too confusing. My own method is to put myself in a state of receptivity during the day."
This work is a fascinating example of late British Surrealism - especially given the relative rarity of the compositional approach - and an interesting document of the interaction between artists and writers within the British Surrealist movement. At the same time, it suggests Agar's continued receptivity to new artistic movements during the later decades of her life; the abstract, semi-accidental style of the work, for example, may also indicate her influence from the French movement of Tachism during the 1940s-50s.
Oil and acrylic on board - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Bride of the Sea
The title Bride of the Sea presumably refers to the woman whose silhouetted face appears in side-profile to the right of the canvas. Rendered in greens, blues, and browns, she seems to emerge from an amorphous mass of color and shape, which flows towards the center of the painting: here we find a ship with diamond-patterned hull and, to the left, a fish formed from triangles of blue, orange, and red. This relatively late work - Agar was eighty when she created it - embraces the marine themes expressed through earlier pieces such as Ceremonial Hat.
We might interpret this painting as a meditation on the formal and emotional connections between human and natural life, a theme broached by Agar throughout her career. According to Michel Remy, the sea-themed motifs are particularly significant in this regard, the work presenting "the head of woman as the materialized spirit of the sea. [...] The bride is in a way fecundated by what she carries along with her, with a domination of the blues and greens, which, like the various shapes, are juxtaposed, overlapping and fused together." Again, then the spirit of feminist Surrealism manifests itself as an expression of hybridity, fluidity, and triumph over boundaries.
Given the age of the artist when she created this work - and the likely autobiographical emphasis - we can also interpret the painting as a reflection on a life of creative flow, the face to the right emerging from, and folding back into, the ideas, themes and images that shaped her work's journey. The sea is a common theme in Surrealist literature and art, as an expression of the subconscious: of all that is most hidden and most powerful within the human psyche.
Acrylic on canvas - Government Art Collection, London
Rock - Ploumanac'h
This late work on paper depicts a cluster of rocks set against a blue sea and green sky, picked out in stylized, Post-Impressionist brushstrokes, with portions of paper left white to suggest the presence of clouds. One of a series of similar works that Agar created during the final years of her life, it is based on a work from an earlier and better-known series, a set of photographs of the Ploumanac'h coastline in Brittany.
Agar had taken those photographs during a holiday with her partner Joseph Bard in 1936, and her desire to return to the location fifty years on suggests an act of reflection and homage. Michel Remy notes that "she went back to [the rocks] out of nostalgia - a kind of pilgrimage in search of the past or in quest of the essence of things in such a way as to challenge their evanescence". Nostalgia however, is only one of the qualities conveyed by the work, which is also the expression of an artist continuing to experiment with new influences and techniques: in this case Post-Impressionism, and the use of photography as a source-material for imaginative reworkings. Agar herself described this piece as an attempt to "combine photography and imagination in a new way", and Remy notes that the new composition is adventurous in its departure from the original image, "almost hallucinatory in the sense that some of the shapes are emphasized at the cost of others and magnified; some of them are anthropomorphized, as if they were 'read' anew and interpreted in the light of the magical transformation which takes place in all her works".
Rock - Ploumanac'h is thus a striking late expression of Agar's unique aesthetic sensibility, a work which both looks back to past lives and presents a self-conscious meditation on the force of imagination, "partaking", as Remy puts it, "of the endless process of the mind's forceful appropriation of reality."
Watercolor, bodycolor, chalks, pen and ink - Private Collection
Biography of Eileen Agar
Childhood and Education
Eileen Agar was born into a wealthy British family, her mother the heir to a biscuit company, her father the manager of a successful windmill and irrigation systems company, Agar Cross. It was his business that took the family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Agar spent her early years. She later characterized her childhood as privileged and eccentric - "full of balloons, hoops and St. Bernard dogs" - and claimed that whenever the family travelled back to Britain her mother insisted on bringing a cow for milk, and an orchestra so that they would be surrounded by music. At six years old, Eileen was sent to England to attend boarding school, where her artistic potential was recognized and encouraged by a teacher. At the outbreak of World War One in 1914 she was sent briefly to attend a more rurally located institution, before being moved on again to Paris, to attend finishing school.
Agar's formal artistic education began when she returned to London, but true to her independent spirit, she quickly rejected the formal approach of the Byam Shaw School of Art in Kensington (where her mother had enrolled her). Seeking a more progressive course of study, she enrolled at the Brook Green School in Hammersmith, and immediately met a group of like-minded students including Cecil Beaton and Henry Moore; in 1921, Agar began studies at the Slade.
It was during this period that she met fellow-student Robin Bartlett, with whom she traveled to Paris in 1924. The couple married in November of the following year but the relationship would not last; Agar later remarked that "the tie between us was for me - uninitiated as I was in the mysteries of sex - only an exploration, though being young I had just cast a romantic glamour on the liaison."
Around the time that her marriage dissolved, Agar met the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard. Seven years older than her, he had a profound impact on the direction of her art and on the course of her personal life, introducing her to a literary and artistic circle including Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats. In 1927, Bard ended his marriage and he and Agar became a couple, moving the following year to Paris. Settling in her own studio-space, Agar felt "reborn": it was at this time that she was exposed to the styles and movements which would most profoundly influence her work, including Cubism, the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuşi, and, most importantly, the Surrealist movement then centered on Paris, spearheaded by André Breton and Paul Éluard. Agar's art moved quickly away from figurative representation, and she began to place emphasis on visualizing the products of her imagination, as is evident from works of this period such as Three Symbols (1930). At this time, Agar's practice was dominated by painting.
Agar's interest in Surrealism was consolidated after her and Bard's return to London around 1930, when she became involved with the short-lived literary magazine The Island, Bard serving as literary director while Agar financed the magazine and contributed artworks. In 1933, at the prompting of her friend Henry Moore, she joined the London Group, an artists' collective which had emerged partly out of the Vorticist movement in the 1910s, and was focused on furthering the cause of avant-garde art in Britain. Around this time, Agar held her first one-woman exhibition, with works showing the strong influence of Surrealism. That influence deepened following her meeting with the painter Paul Nash in 1935, during one of her and Bard's summer-holidays to Dorset. Nash and Agar become lovers despite her ongoing relationship with Bard (a fact which he unhappily tolerated), and Nash introduced Agar to the idea of the 'found object'; much of her work from this point on is collage and bricolage-based.
Travel would have a profound impact on Agar's career. During a 1936 trip to Brittany, for example, she photographed the Ploumanac'h Rocks, leading to a series of photographs including the comic Bum and Thumb Rock, and to her embrace of natural and organic forms as motifs in her work. She once stated: "the earliest forms of Nature to a painter are studies in pure abstract design. I must go back to these forms and create design out of what the scientist tells us." Her social life during the 1930s was also the stuff of bohemian legend. During one summer in 1937, she and Bard first holidayed on the Fal River in Cornwall with the Surrealist couple Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, and with Henry Moore and his partner Irina Radetsky, before moving on to Mougins, France, in the company of Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Paul and Nusch Eluard, and Paul Nash, to join Pablo Picasso and Man Ray at the Hotel Vaste Horizon. This was reportedly a time of wild partying, with Agar subsequently recalling that all the guests decided to swap first names one night, with fines due to anyone who forgot to use the new monikers correctly. Agar was also photographed at this time dancing on the rooftops in Mougins in a transparent dress; of the Surrealists' dress-code and life-style, she would later remark "the punk rockers of the seventies and eighties were anticipated in their peacock plumes by the Surrealists, some forty years before."
While she never explicitly described herself as a Surrealist, Agar was linked with the movement in the eyes of both critics and the public. She was also part of the English Surrealist Group founded in 1936 - along with Herbert Read, Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, David Gascoyne, and others - and had the distinction of being the only British woman represented in the famous 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Perhaps surprisingly, this show was more popular with general audiences than with reviewers, some of whom were caustic in their appraisals. As part of the Surrealist Group, Agar helped to support the works of artists in other countries over the following years: during World War II, for example, she and Bard organized a dinner in honor of their Jewish artist-friends such as Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, and László Moholy-Nagy, all of whom were in the middle-stage of their flight from continental Europe to the United States. In preparation for the dinner, Agar and Bard created what was described as a "Surrealist table", with a center-piece formed of hanging flowers, fruits, and crackers.
The impact of World War II was deeply felt by Agar, who took a step back from art to engage in various patriotic duties: she served as a canteen assistant, for example, preparing and serving food and washing floors, and also worked as a fire-watcher at night. In 1940, in the midst of global political uncertainty, Agar and Bard married, perhaps to prove to each other - and to themselves - the strength of their devotion, or simply to bring a modicum of stability to their lives. This was also the period of Surrealism's greatest impact in Britain - of the New Apocalypse movement in literature, for example, centered on writers like Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas - and by the end of the war Agar's reputation was firmly established. She made appearances on television to support the British Surrealist movement, including as an interviewee on the 1948 documentary The Eye of the Artist. It was during a discussion of her practice on this program that Agar displayed one of her various 'Surrealist hats', Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse (1936).
Whereas the middle period of Agar's career had been dominated by collage and sculpture-based work, towards the end of her life she returned to painting, partly after discovering acrylic paint. Of this new compositional material she remarked: "It is very versatile, can be used as impasto, with palette knife, or a thin wash [which] gives wonderful glazes."
A defining event of these later years was the death of Agar's husband in 1975. Joseph Bard's fifteen-year-long illness had taken a toll on both of them, and for the last few years of his life, Agar had devoted herself primarily to his care. After Bard's death, however, Agar, already in her mid-seventies, began to refocus attention on her work, which became increasingly autobiographical. She was still surrounded by an eclectic group of literary and artistic figures, and in 1986 modelled dresses for the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. She stated that "the Miyake designs were like new masks, which released the wearer from him or herself." In her late eighties, Agar wrote and published a biography, A Look at My Life (1988); shortly afterwards, she was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. On November 7, 1991, Eileen Agar died, a month shy of her 92nd birthday.
The Legacy of Eileen Agar
Eileen Agar helped to shape the development of Surrealism in Britain, a contribution made all the more impressive by the fact that she was one of only a few women associated with the movement. Her work continues to be exhibited in galleries all across the world, while the impact of her aesthetics can also be seen in the work of contemporary artists crafting their own versions of Surrealism, such as Beth Hoeckel, Frank Moth, and Charles Wilkin. Agar's influence is also apparent in the world of fashion, with some of today's leading designers turning to the example of Surrealism to create clothes from solid materials and found objects, such as Hussein Chalayan's 2000 'coffee-table skirt' (made of wood), Martin Margiela's 2009 'wig coat', and Mary Katrantzou's 2011 lampshade-inspired dress.