Demeter, 1949. Private collection. © Estate of Eileen Agar
Exhibition Review – Adam Bambury visits Eileen Agar: An Eye for Collage running until March 15 2009 at Pallant House Gallery.
Eileen Agar (1899-1991) is perhaps best known as part of the Surrealist movement, thanks to being one of the only women artists represented at the famous International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 – the moment when Surrealism took hold of Britain.
This exhibition – containing many previously unseen works from 60 years of her life – seeks to reassess the artist, arguing that she had a unique creative vision of her own, and one far more independent than a simple 'Surrealist' tag suggests.
Taking in the contents of the three rooms at Pallant House Gallery devoted to the exhibition, it is hard to disagree with this thesis. Arranged roughly chronologically, the pieces on the walls and in cabinets vary in style and content as they proceed through the decades, but remain very definitely Agar’s.
As curator and friend of Agar, Andrew Lambirth puts it: “This exhibition highlights the variety of her visual imaginings while emphasising its consistency of thought.”
The Autobiography of an Embryo (1933-34). © Estate of Eileen Agar / Tate, London 2008
He insists Agar’s work had other motivating forces behind it than merely riding the predominant current of Surrealism, and that particularly it followed in the long tradition of English Romanticism.
Agar’s unique works, he argues, combine this feeling with modern European discoveries like cubism, as well as her own intriguing layering techniques, where collaged paper is cut through with a knife to reveal the hidden depths below.
Compelling physical evidence, if any were needed, that Agar had a fully formed style of her own before the beguiling influence of Surrealism was really felt on these shores, is The Autobiography of an Embryo. Crafted over a year between 1933 and 1934, the complex and colourful four-section oil painting demands attention.
It is an evocation of the development of an embryo and a product of Agar’s belief in 'womb magic', or reproduction, as an important part of the feminine psyche and mode of expression. While not physically a collage, the way the shapes are layered evokes this form often favoured by Agar, while her debt to cubism is also discernible.
In the painting can be found motifs that would linger in Agar’s art for the rest of her life – shells, nets, angel fish, classical sculpture and geometric forms, as well as subtle human profiles and open hands. It is a strangely unsettling work, prodding uncomfortably at the edges of consciousness and seeming to touch something hidden beyond.
Untitled Box, 1935. Private Collection. © Estate of Eileen Agar
Though often powerful, Agar’s works also exhibit a lightness of touch. 1935’s Untitled Box is a playful example of her collage work – a bright undersea scene in a wooden box complete with actual coral, seahorse and netting. Above lurks an all-seeing eye of Horus, adding a mythic, timeless, sense to the piece.
Throughout the exhibition Agar’s witty personality shines through the art. That this was the woman who once created Surrealist headgear such as the 'Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse' is evident in an untitled pastel and wax crayon sketch from 1954.
In it, delicately sketched lithe figures dance next to a heavily rendered man-size cockerel with bright orange legs and a huge multicoloured tail. A figure in the foreground seems to be bowing down in worship of this plump and commanding fowl.
Another earlier sketch reveals an important part of Agar’s life. Drawn in 1927, it is a small colour pencil portrait of Joseph Bard, a Hungarian writer, looking pensively downwards with blocks of colour across his large forehead. Agar had met Bard the year before, shortly after marrying another man.
They became lovers and married in 1940, staying together until Bard’s death in 1975. He was a great inspiration to Agar and it is poignant to see this early portrait in full knowledge of what the future would hold.
Flower Palette, 1978. Courtesy of the Agar Estate. © Estate of Eileen Agar
Agar made art until she was into her 90s. Though the exhibition focuses primarily on what is considered perhaps her greatest period of work, the 1930s, there are still many interesting pieces to look at from later eras that reveal Agar continued to experiment up to the end of her life.
In 1960’s Head of Dylan Thomas she used a paint-dripping method akin to Abstract Expressionist techniques to create a lively portrait of the Welsh poet. A combination of oil paint and lacquer was skilfully dripped onto a busy canvas already splattered with reds, blues and blacks to create the distinctive white outline of Thomas’s face and curly hair.
Though these later works have undoubted merit, it is the incredible creativity and unique perspective of Agar’s earlier works that really etch themselves into memory.
Muse of Construction, 1939. Private Collection. © Estate of Eileen Agar
There is the clever simplicity of Philemon and Baucis (1939) – two pieces of tree rubbing sat next to each other over a turquoise backdrop, referencing Ovid’s tale of an elderly couple who could stay together forever after being turned to adjacent trees at the moment of their deaths as a gift from the gods for their hospitality.
And then there is wild primal complexity of the oil painting Abundance from 1942, with its ammonites, crescent moons, hidden human profiles, scattered eyes and blazing orange sun, full of wheels, above it all.
While the curator’s insistence that Agar should not be tarred with the Surrealist brush begs the question of just what is so wrong with Surrealism. This enthralling exhibition makes clear that Agar was far more than just a token female in an often-dismissed art movement. A compelling and vibrant artist, she has left us a legacy, well worth putting under the spotlight.