Agar, Eileen (1899–1991)

views updated

Agar, Eileen (1899–1991)

Argentine-born British surrealist sculptor, whose works were enormously popular in the 1930s. Born Eileen Agar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 1, 1899; died in London on November 17, 1991; daughter of James and Mamie Agar; educated at Heathfield, Ascot; studied art under sculptor Leon Underwood (1924), at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks (1925–26), and in Paris (1928–30); married Robin Bartlett (a painter), in 1925 (separated 1926); married Joseph Bard (a Hungarian-born writer), in 1940.

Her artistic works such as Quadriga were enormously popular (1930s); known as a surrealist sculptor, first exhibited her work Angel of Anarchy in the London Gallery as part of the Exhibition of Surrealist Poems and Objects (1937); became a major celebrity in the London gallery scene (1930s); published autobiography A Look at My Life (1988); continued artistic work well into old age, remaining influential in London art circles.

Selected paintings:

Self-Portrait (1927); Movement in Space (1931); The Modern Muse (1931); Autobiography of an Embryo (1933–34); Quadriga (1936); Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse (1936); Angel of Anarchy (1938); Marine Object (1939); Battle Cry/Bullet Proof Painting (1938). Work in the permanent collections of Tate Gallery, Arts Council, Contemporary Art Society, National Gallery of New Zealand.

Eileen Agar, born in Buenos Aires on December 1, 1899, was one of three daughters. Her Scottish father was a businessman whose sales of agricultural machinery in Argentina made the family immensely wealthy. Although she was born in Argentina, the family returned to England for extended stays every other year. In 1911, the Agars settled permanently in London, moving into a luxurious house in Belgrave Square, close to Knightsbridge and virtually next to Buckingham Palace. A second opulent home was purchased in Scotland for the autumn holidays after the close of the social season.

Agar's life was typical of an upper-class woman. She was prepared for her introduction to society and a good marriage. Educated at the prestigious Heathfield School, Eileen discovered her artistic talents. Her early interest in art was not only tolerated by her parents but encouraged as an acceptable pastime for a woman of the upper strata. In her late teens, when she decided to break with social convention and make art her life, her mother Mamie Agar hired a water-color teacher. Eileen attended classes at the Byam Shaw School of Art in Kensington, spending long hours mastering oil painting techniques. In 1921, she began studying at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks, who was known for his vehement dismissal of the European Modernists and his emphasis on representational art. In keeping with Slade's teaching practice, Agar copied classical busts and painted from male and female models. Her progress is said to have been "respectable but unremarkable." Classmates included Henry Moore, Gertrude Hermes , Rodney Thomas, and painter Robin Bartlett.

Defying her family in 1925, Agar married Bartlett, partly to elude parental constraints. Both parents refused to attend the wedding, which took place in London's artistic section of Chelsea. Eileen's American-born mother, one of London's best-known hostesses, felt her daughter was marrying far beneath her station. Her father, however, who died a few months later, must have partially forgiven his errant daughter, as he left her an annual income of £1,000, a substantial sum at the time. The couple traveled to Paris and Spain, where Agar first came under the spell of Goya and El Greco. She soon found, however, that marriage had its own constraints. In 1926, she separated from Bartlett and began her lifelong relationship with a married man, Hungarian-born author Joseph Bard. By 1927, she and Bard were living together in London's bohemian district of Bloomsbury.

After Agar began her relationship with Bard, she broke away from conventional art and began developing her own style. Self-Portrait, painted in 1927, ushered in a new era for her work; she felt she had "thrown off the shackles and started a new life." Her fortune allowed the couple to travel extensively, and they spent time in Paris and explored picturesque small towns and villages throughout France and Italy. They met and exchanged ideas with many of the leading avant-garde writers of the period, including William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Osbert Sitwell, and Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, who unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Agar, went on to base a character on her in one of his novels. In 1929, Agar set up a studio in the Rue Schoelcher in Paris. There, she met the sculptor Brancusi, Surrealists André Breton and Paul Eluard, and came under the influence of the Czech painter Foltyn, an abstract Cubist.

A frequent visitor to the Jardin des Plantes, Agar became attracted to the formations in natural history, especially fossils. Grimes, Collins, and Baddeley wrote in Five Women Painters: "The enigmatic subtlety of nature's transformational powers became the basis of a new aesthetic for Agar." In a December 1931 edition of the Island (a literary journal started with Bard), Agar wrote of "womb-magic, the dominance of female creativity and imagination," linking physical and artistic birth. These concepts culminated into her large, 1934 work, Autobiography of an Embryo.

By 1930, she and Bard had tired of travel, and, since his books were increasingly successful in England, they had decided to settle in London. At that time it was not socially acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together, so they leased two apartments in the same building in the unfashionable Earl's Court section of London.

Eileen Agar continued to develop her own artistic style, which was turning toward surrealism by the mid-1930s. She spent the summer of 1935 at Swanage, in England, where she met and became friends with Paul Nash, one of the few British painters committed to the Surrealist ideas of representation. The two proved a positive influence on each other. Continuing her fascination with nature, Agar began gathering odd shapes from the Dorset beaches, such as cork, wood, shells, and stone. She also discovered a shell-encrusted anchor chain, which Nash called a bird snake and used in his photomontage entitled Swanage. Attentive to the dynamics between the sexes, Agar wrote: "The sea and the land sometimes play together like man and wife, and achieve astonishing results."

Through Nash, Agar met influential critics Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, two of the British organizers of the landmark International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Gallery in London. Impressed with her work, they chose three oil paintings, including Quadriga, and five objects for the 1936 show. "One day I was an artist exploring highly personal combinations of form and content," wrote Agar, "and the next I was calmly informed I was a Surrealist."

In the 1930s, Eileen Agar's studio was centered around an unconventional clock designed by her friend Rodney Thomas. Driftwood and strange rock formations enhanced the room's dreamlike quality. "Normal" objects such as rope and fish netting added to the atmosphere because of their strange placement. Although Agar did not regard herself as a surrealist, her abstract works became increasingly overlaid with figurative images. Perceptive and open-minded critics like Penrose and Read were impressed by the energy and originality of Agar's vision. Two of her works in particular became extraordinarily popular in the late 1930s. Quadriga, inspired by a photograph of a horse's head from the Parthenon, was striking. Describing the work, Agar said, "One horse's head became four ghost heads, agitated, beating rhythmic cabalistic convoluted signs expressing movement and anxiety, each square a different mood. Were they the four horses of the Apocalypse?" This powerful painting, which was seen by many as a fitting symbol of the anxieties and ambiguities of life in the 20th century was acquired by the Tate Gallery for its permanent collection.

A second work, the sculpture Angel of Anarchy, was an even more biting commentary on modern life. It was first exhibited in 1937 in the London Gallery as part of their Exhibition of Surrealist Poems and Objects. A powerful work, it offended some viewers while it delighted others. Few were indifferent to its form and implied messages. When the original work was lost, a new and even bolder version of the Angel of Anarchy was created in 1940. In its new form Angel of Anarchy presented a head greatly enriched with feathers, beads, fur, embroidery and even shells. A brilliant final touch was a blindfold, no doubt symbolizing Britain's future in 1940 because of the country's stubborn refusal to accept Adolf Hitler's domination of the European continent. Angel of Anarchy also became part of the Tate Gallery's permanent collection.

Agar was one of the few women, and the main British woman, who came to be recognized as part of the predominantly male movement (other noted female Surrealists include Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim , and Ithell Colquhoun ). "As a movement it may not question the nature of patriarchy but it at least recognizes its existence," note Grimes, Collins, and Baddeley. "The fact that desire and sexuality play a pre-eminent role in much surrealist work, forces an understanding of the presupposed gender of both artist and audience, a recognition frequently subsumed in less overtly masculine art…. Traditional denials of female rationality, of the ability of women to think on an abstract level, combined with equally long-standing associations with nature and the natural, freed ['Women's Art'] from the civilized values so detested by the surrealists." Angel of Anarchy was spoken of as "an almost perfect encapsulation of the Surrealist aesthetic while remaining a very female work."

Colquhoun, Ithell (1906–1988)

English painter and poet. Born on October 9, 1906, in Shillong, Assam, India; died on April 11, 1988, in Cornwall, England; educated at Cheltenham College; studied art at the Slade School of Art and in Paris. Work in permanent collections: Tate Gallery, V&A Bradford, Cheltenham and Southampton Galleries, Glasgow and London Universities. Signs work: in early years, Ithell Colquhoun on back; since 1962, by a monogram.

Ithell Colquhoun joined the English Surrealist group in 1939, but she left the group the following year when pressured to abandon her work on occultism. The result of her experiments in automatism, decalcomania, sfumage, frottage, and collage were published in an article titled "The Mantic Stain" in the October 1949 issue of Enquiry. Colquhoun also authored The Crying Wind (1955), The Living Stones (1957), the Surrealist occult novel, Goose of Hermogenes (Peter Owen, 1961), Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket (1973), Sword of Wisdom (1975), and travel books on Cornwall and Ireland.

Eluard, Nusch (1906–1946)

German artist, model, and author. Born Maria Benz in 1906 in Alsace, Mulhouse, France (then annexed by Germany as Mülhausen); died in 1946 in Paris; married Paul Eluard (a Surrealist painter), in 1934.

Born in Alsace, France, Maria Benz began her career as an actress, choosing Nusch as a stage name. Moving to Paris in 1920, she met her husband, painter Paul Eluard, in 1930, while working as a model for postcards and serving as a walk-on at the Théâtre Grand Guignol. They were married in 1934. For the next two years, she modelled for Man Ray and Pablo Picasso and created a series of Surrealist photomontages, essentially using the female nude. (Her collages were published by Editions Nadada in 1978.) During World War II, the Eluards remained in Paris, joining the Resistance. Weakened by the harshness of the German Occupation, Nusch Eluard died suddenly in 1946.

In the summer of 1937, Agar was invited to join a coterie of the avant-garde in the South of France. There, she mingled with Paul and Nusch Eluard , Roland Penrose, and photographer Lee Miller , becoming part of a group centered around Pablo Picasso. The war years saw the completion of her work Battle Cry/Bullet Proof Painting, her marriage to Bard in 1940, and a reconciliation with her ailing and alcoholic mother. After the war, and frequent visits to Tenerife, Agar's work began to take on the characteristics of Abstract Expressionism, or the "New York School." Her belief in the "power of female imagery," write Grimes, Collins, and Baddeley, "her interest in sexual archetypes and subversion of traditional materials of fine art all serve to deny the inviolability of the male artist. Her work may not be self-consciously feminist but it is certainly an assertion of women's art."

After many years of recognition, Agar's reputation began to fade. The reasons for this are complex, but several conclusions are obvious. Sexism played a role. Gifted women artists were often confronted by hostility and indifference in the art world. Geopolitical and economic forces also played a part. By 1945, the New York School dominated the art world, whose geopolitical center moved from Europe to the United States. A female artist working in a physically impoverished and intellectually threadbare Britain in the postwar world could count on little critical support. Eileen Agar was not discouraged by these shifts in the public mood and continued to produce powerful, visually rich and witty works of art into her final years. In 1971, she was given a much-deserved retrospective exhibition at the Commonwealth Art Gallery. To the end of her long life, she continued to exhibit at the major London galleries, and her final years she was able to delight a growing number of admirers. Her autobiography, A Look at My Life, was published in 1988. Eileen Agar died in London on November 17, 1991. Her accomplishments will not be sufficiently appreciated until women's contribution to art is fully assessed.


Agar, Eileen, with Andrew Lambirth. A Look at My Life. London: Methuen, 1988.

Caws, Mary Ann, Rudolf E. Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, eds. Surrealism and Women. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Boston: Little Brown, 1985.

"Eileen Agar," in The Times [London]. November 18, 1991, p. 9.

Grimes, Teresa, Judith Collins, and Oriana Baddeley. Five Women Painters. London: Lennard Publishing, 1989.

Trevelyan, Julian. Indigo Days. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957.

related media:

"Five Women Painters," television film, 1989.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia