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."
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."
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.