Photograph of Agar wearing Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1936, Photograph
Private Collection, © Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images
This retrospective cleverly returns Agar to the site of the “International Surrealist Exhibition" of 1936, when she was proclaimed a Surrealist, as she said, “One day I was an artist exploring highly personal combinations of form and content, the next I was calmly informed I was a Surrealist!”.
Agar was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, her father was a Scottish industrialist and her mother, an American biscuit heiress. She dashed her parents’ high hopes for an eligible match as a debutante, and pursued art instead, admitted to The Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 1921. Agar was disappointed by the traditional academic training she received and following her graduation in 1925, she destroyed most of the work she’d created to date. She ran away to Cornwall and upon returning to London, she moved in with her lifelong partner, Joseph Bard.
The exhibition follows the chronology of her life across two floors, beginning with her early paintings. In these works, Agar breaks up form through tones of brightly-hued colors, circumventing shapes with cloissoné-esque lines in her Self-Portrait (1927). She traveled to Paris in 1928 with her lover Joseph Bard, where she was introduced to Cubism and the anarchy of Surrealism. In her subsequent compositions and colorings, Agar takes the harsh geometry of Cubism turning it into soft cubic ‘womb magic’. Excited by the Surrealist articulation of the subconscious, Agar was nonetheless disapproving of the group’s treatment of their female peers. ‘Womb magic’ was Agar’s subversion of the Surrealist notion of the subconscious to establish a female dominance over the patriarchal order. Her paintings The Modern Muse (1934) and The Autobiography of an Embryo (1933-4) in the first room express this philosophy of matriarchal power in technicolor. The Autobiography of an Embryo can possibly be seen to prefigure her collages, for which she is best known, with playful motifs, symbols and shapes drawn from the sea. Agar was obsessed with the sea and spent much of her life in its proximity.
Collage was her favorite Surrealist technique, building on her articulation of form through colors, she started to create textured silhouettes and assemblages. While the surrealists championed the found manufactured object, she preferred organic objects, especially those she found near the sea, believing in their natural surrealist quality. This is best captured in Marine Object (1939): Agar rescued a Greek Amphora from a fisherman in a seaside town in France, with barnacles and seashells still attached, and she added to it a ram’s horn, dried starfish, crucifix fish skeleton, a shell and sea appendages. Crafting an assembled object that could have easily been unearthed from the sea in its totality. Strongly against the Surrealist use of the female muse, Agar turned her husband Bard into her own muse. She used plaster casts of his head for Angel of Anarchy (1936-40) and Angel of Mercy (1934). Anarchy is bound and blindfolded with furs, jewels, seashells and feathers, and suggests submissive and erotic connotations, referring to her own agency as the artist rather than the muse.
Upstairs, we are treated to Agar’s archival performance of her Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, alongside a fun and playful vitrine with small assemblage objects taken mostly from the sea. These small fragmentary pieces are accompanied by Agar’s beautiful photographs of naturally Surrealist forms. This is her famous series of photographs from Ploumanac’h in France, where she was inspired to document the absurd coastal rock formations, buying a camera that would become her “constant companion” going forward.
The final exhibition rooms showcase her work from World War Two until the end of her life. Unfortunately, the magnificent strength of the exhibition wanes from here for me, mainly because of the shift in tone for Agar’s work. During the war, Agar stayed in London, in her studio she found it difficult to concentrate on painting but found solace in collage. Stuck inside with bombs flying around her, she relied on her interior imagination. As a result, these wartime collages have a much more muted palette and demonstrate the anxieties of the time. I found them less visually attractive than those she created in the pre-war period because of their sobriety. However, following the war, despondent and in the grips of deep sadness, she was reinvigorated by a trip to Tenerife in 1953. She found a new visual language and techniques that did create a flourish of excitement in this last section of the exhibition and her oeuvre. She started working with frottage, decalcomania and automatism techniques - pouring, dripping and working with experimental materials such as house paints and continued collage. In The Sea (The Coast at Eastbourne) (1950), she played with enamel paint to create the enduring impact of the sea on her life and art.
While the final wall of acrylic painted versions of the Ploumanac’h photographs is a little underwhelming, the exhibition as a whole serves as a poignant testament to Agar’s rich and varied career. Subverting the expectations of her family and as a women artist, she turned Picasso into her muse and contributed to The Island journal with Gandhi.