wed 23/06/2021

Eileen Agar, Whitechapel Gallery review - a free spirit to the end | reviews, news & interviews

Eileen Agar, Whitechapel Gallery review - a free spirit to the end

Eileen Agar, Whitechapel Gallery review - a free spirit to the end

An important female surrealist gets her first retrospective

Eileen Agar wearing "Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse" 1936 Private Collection © Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images

Eileen Agar was the only woman included in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, which introduced London to artists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. The Surrealists were exploring the creative potential of chance, chaos and the irrational which they saw as the feminine principle, yet they didn’t welcome women artists into their group.

Eileen Agar Joseph Sleeping 1929 Oil on board Dimensions unknown Courtesy of Redfern Gallery, London ©Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman ImagesAgar wasn’t easily discouraged, though. At the tender age of six, she’d been sent away to boarding school, an experience that made her fiercely independent. Later she studied at the Slade, but rebelled against the art school’s academic approach. A portrait from 1929 (pictured right) shows her to be a powerful painter. Strong Fauvist colours create a tender likeness of her partner, the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard. Warm reds, pinks and yellows light one side of the sleeping man’s face, while cool blues and blacks create the shadow side.

That same year the couple took off for Paris where they met André Breton and Paul Elouard. Agar was drawn to the Surrealists’ use of found images and objects, but she was also studying with the cubist painter Fratisek Foltyn. And during a career spanning nearly 70 years, her aim was to combine these disparate languages into a fusion she described as “the interpenetration of reason and unreason.“

Eileen Agar Angel of Anarchy 1936-1940 Plaster, fabric, shells, beads, diamante stones, other materials 570x460x317mm © Tate ImagesToday she is best known for sculptures like the Angel of Anarchy 1936 (pictured left), a plaster cast of Bard’s head draped in beads and feathers, studied with diamante and swathed in silk scarves. If this flamboyant character seems slightly malign, it’s companion the mask-like Angel of Mercy, which is painted in geometric patterns, is similarly ambiguous. The pair are like talismans, personifying her Surrealist and Cubist tendencies.

Agar also made another assemblage from blue-painted cork decorated with shells, corals, seaweed and assorted marine bric a brac, which she humorously described as “Archimboldo head gear for the fashion conscious”. The V&A owns this wonderful sculpture which, sadly, isn’t included in the Whitechapel show. Instead, there’s newsreel footage of the artist wearing an earlier version of the hat (main picture). The inane voice-over is a timely reminder of how women have been routinely patronised, and how this has led to female artists being marginalised or overlooked altogether.

1936 was a good year for Agar. In Ploumanach, France she photographed a group of rocks eroded by the sea into extraordinary shapes often resembling naked bodies, which she described as like “a show of sculpture in the open air” (pictured below rightBum and Thumb Rock © Tate images). Friends like Picasso, Dora Maar, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller were also caught on camera along with odd things that caught her eye, some of which found their way into her collages.

Eileen Agar Photograph of ‘Bum and thumb rock’ in Ploumanac’h 1936 Black and white negative 163 × 118 mm © Tate ImagesAgar was extremely prolific and seeing so much of her work brought together is a delight. The collages are especially fine. Her huge store of pictures included anatomical studies and X rays of the human body plus all kinds of sea creatures. She continually refers to the ocean, seeing it as a metaphor for the unconscious. Erotic Landscape 1942 (pictured below) is a multi-layered cornucopia. Superimposed onto abstract shapes, her naked body is overlain with fish, seaweed and cellular structures suggestive of abundance; but there’s also an undertow of darkness.

As part of the war effort, the couple worked in a soup kitchen, served as fire watchers and opened their London home to refugees. It was a bleak time and, for many years afterwards, Agar was dogged by “a sense of despondency”. She had begun experimenting with poured paint and in Portrait 1949, a figure emerges from pools of dark green and black pigment like a lost soul gradually surfacing from despair. It seems very much like a self-portrait.

“Surely room must be made for joy in this world?” she wrote later; she continued working, but it would be a while before her palette lightened. In Collective Unconscious 1977 geometric shapes are juxtaposed with floral motifs, a head and large shell to suggest the interconnection of human, organic and abstract forms and to embody the synthesis between reason and unreason she had been striving for.

Eileen Agar Erotic Landscape 1942 Collage on paper 255x305mm Private collection ©Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images Photograph courtesy Pallant House Gallery, Chichester © Doug AtfieldThen in the mid-1980s, when she was in her eighties, she translated her rock photographs into paintings whose heightened colours are like a defiant burst of exuberance. She died in 1991 having remained a free spirit until the end.

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