Glass reviews Eileen Agar: Angel Of Anarchy at the Whitechapel Gallery

IT WAS reported last year that as a result of the pandemic, 78% UK job losses made were women’s, leaving roughly 1.5 million women without an income. It feels potently apt that the Whitechapel Gallery have chosen to open its doors after a year of closure to a bedazzling roster of female artists including Ayo Akingbade’s A Glittering City and Nalini Malani’s Can You Hear Me?

On the top floor of the gallery you’ll find Phantoms of Surrealism, a room dedicated to 11 female artists who helped kickstart Surrealism, focussing on The London Surrealist exhibition they organised in 1936 at the New Burlington Galleries, as well as the Artists International Association exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939.Eileen Agar wearing Bouillabaise hat

Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaise (1936) Private Collection © Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images

Whitechapel has come full circle, welcoming back one of their very own, showcasing the first significant retrospective of Eileen Agar downstairs and also a snippet on the top floor where you’ll find The Butterfly Bride, 1938. Strolling through each room you get a sense of Agar’s artistic journey, gathering momentum and identity as she finds her voice within (and outside of) the masculine walls of the art world.

It seems as though Agar’s inner strength was established from birth. Born in Buenos Aires, her strong spirit was punished by her industrialist father and American heiress mother, who sent her to an English boarding school in Canford Hills aged six before moving to Heathfield school in Ascot. Whilst her parents may have hoped for strictness and sobriety, it was at Heathfield where Agar was taught by painter Lucy Kemp-Welch who encouraged her to “always have something to do with art.”

Agar followed Welch’s wish and went onto study at the Slade School of Art, a traditional institution she later rebelled from, shaving her head and fleeing to Cornwall as soon as she gradated “to celebrate my new freedom.” Along with her newfound liberation came freedom of expression, “everything I had done before was academic in approach, careful of other men’s teaching”, to freedom of choice — “I had begun to free myself from the cul-de-sac of representational painting.”

Agar returned to London in 1926 with author Joseph Bard, her muse and lover whom she didn’t marry until 1940. Together they lived and worked separately — a modern relationship concept even by todays standards. Eileen Agar - Dance of Peace

Eileen Agar – Dance of Peace (1945) Private Collection

Agar’s fresh perspective kickstarted her art career, “I had thrown off the shackles and started a new life, and I painted what may be considered my first successful work” that is Self Portrait, 1927. Switching her gaze from herself and onto others both shifted and challenged the notion of the male gaze, a stance we continue to question today. Agar further developed this subversive subject matter, creating her very own artistic theory, the theory of Womb Magic.

Agar’s theory can be found in various pieces including Angel of Mercy, 1924 where we find Bard as her muse, in The Modern Muse, 1934 where creativity itself is her muse, and in The Autobiography of An Embryo, 1933-34. Whilst she was never a mother herself, Agar speaks of this piece more broadly as “a celebration of life, not only a single one, but life in general on this particular and moving planet.”

Eileen Agar - Lewis Carroll and Alice Eileen Agar – Alice with Lewis Carroll (1961) Private Collection 

The planet was indeed an enormous inspiration on Agar’s practice, “you see the shape of a tree, the way a pebble falls or is formed, and you are astounded to discover that dumb nature makes an effort to speak to you.” Forever hunting for artistic stimulus in nature , Agar would gather fossils, shells, bones, leaves and ceramics on her forest and beach combing adventures, “I surround myself with fantastic bric-à-brac in order to trigger my imagination.”

Agar’s eccentricity was not solely restricted to her work as an artist but in her personal style too — aged 87 she modelled for Surrealist fashion designer, Issey Miyake. We catch a glimpse of her witty style in Video of Agar wearing Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1948 — donning a daring bonnet that made waves in the masculine dominated Surrealist circles.

Eileen Agar Rock 3

Eileen Agar – Rock 3 (1985) Courtesy of Redfern Gallery, London

Agar is simultaneously playful and playing on the boundaries of art. She took the mischievous magic of Surrealism, using their techniques of collage and assemblage, enjoying the subconscious artistic response and collection of random imagery, and applied it to her work and gave it a new direction. In a world where women are encouraged to stay in their lanes and where art is confined to specific movements, Agar’s art is a celebration of nuance.Amongst all of her success it’s easy to forget the backdrop of the patriarchal society and artistic circles she was moving in —not only had she saved Salvador Dali’s life, but Agar had also holidayed with Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France, a man she was “careful not to be pulled too far into into his influence.” Instead she played on his Cubist principles in Muse on Construction, 1939 and served her Womb Magic Theory, using Picasso himself as the muse. Not a whiff of imposter syndrome can be found here.

Speaking of her Surrealist and abstract styles Agar notes that “the two movements that interest me. I see nothing incompatible in that, indeed we walk on two legs, and for me, one is abstract, the other Surreal — it is point and counterpoint.”

Eileen Agar - Quadriga jpeg

Eileen Agar – Quadriga (1935) Courtesy of The Penrose Collection

Agar’s inquisitive and mischievous spirit could never be tamed, in her 1989 autobiography, Agar explained her “life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play. In play all that is lovely and soaring in the human spirit strives to find expressions. In play the mind is prepared to enter a world where different laws apply, to be free.”An exhibition highlight includes the collection of photographs Agar took on her square Rolleiflex camera of the Ploumanac’h coastal rock formations in France that appear “sculpted by the sea, that master worker of all time, as if nature had arranged a show of sculpture in the open air.” Agar was a “master worker” herself, working until her death in 1991, a year after she was made a
Royal Academician.

 The only pause in her 70 year career came during WW2, where as a Pacifist Agar volunteered in a canteen on Saville Row — a period of her life where she “felt it impossible to concentrate.” It would be trite and lazy to compare the pandemic to a world war, and yet her response to the ending of the war is something we too might carry post pandemic, “like something new and marvellous ought to happen.” So go forth and enjoy your new sense of freedom and marvel at Agar’s work at the Whitechapel gallery.

By Charlie Newman

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy is open at the Whitechapel Gallery until the 29th of August, between 11am and 6pm, closed on Mondays. Book your ticket here.

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