‘I was astonished they let me in’ — The woman who infiltrated the male world of the Surrealists
In between glamorous parties and hedonistic adventures with the great cultural figures of her day, Eileen Agar blended abstraction and the surreal to reveal ‘what is concealed in the hide-and-seek of life’. Illustrated with works offered in February and March
One day in 1924 Eileen Agar stepped back to consider a painting she had made and crashed straight into a standing mirror, sending shards of shattered glass everywhere.
‘Bad luck was my first thought,’ she recalled, ‘but then I realised that it was only the old image of myself I had smashed, and that I could exorcise the bad luck by creating a new image of a more liberated and imaginative being. I was suddenly transposed… into the real illusory world of art.’
Beautiful, creative and singleminded, Agar is often described as a woman Surrealist, thanks to her inclusion in the famous London International Surrealist exhibition of 1936. In fact she was relatively ambivalent about the movement. ‘I didn’t agree with the automatic part of Surrealism,’ she said. ‘A painting is not automatic, you have to think about it.’
However, she was proud to be one of them. ‘I was astonished they let me in — they only ever thought of women as muses,’ she said. Agar confronted the group’s notorious misogyny rather well by using the men in her life as subject matter. Not even Pablo Picasso, whom she gently teased in a vibrant semi-Cubist portrait from 1939 entitled Muse of Construction, was off limits.
Paintings by Agar will be offered in the First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online sale from 23 February to 9 March, and in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale on 2 March. The works were painted in the 1960s and early 1970s, and reveal Agar to be a vibrant colourist with a singular vision.
‘She was a woman doing things with a spirit of independence, at a time when it was very difficult to succeed as a female artist,’ says Christie’s specialist Isabel Millar.
Born in Argentina in 1899, Agar was the daughter of a Scottish businessman and a biscuit heiress. Her life in the handsome city of Buenos Aires was that of a privileged expat — beach parties, trips to the opera, polo matches. When the family eventually returned to Britain in 1911 it was to Belgravia in London, from where she attended a series of art schools including the Slade.
Photographs of Agar reveal a striking, determined young woman. There is an image of her dancing semi-naked on a rooftop outside Mougins in 1937. It is a beautiful and carefree picture, revealing what a liberated female artist could be. Her husband Joseph Bard once said, ‘Eileen’s special trend is trying to do something in a way that cannot be done, such as making love standing on a hammock.’
Her independence and tenacity proved crucial when her parents cut her off financially. ‘I had a great feeling of unease,’ she wrote later, ‘and wanted to do something that I considered more worthwhile than the usual repetitive routine of marrying and having a brood of children, who would probably be slaughtered in the next war.’ She moved into a one-room studio in Chelsea and committed her life to art.
After a brief and unsuitable marriage to a fellow Slade student, Robin Bartlett, she married Bard, a Hungarian writer, and moved to Paris. It was the architect and designer Adolf Loos who recommended she study with the Czech Cubist František Foltyn.
Agar began experimenting with abstraction, creating paintings with overlapping patterns and blocks of colour in which she incorporated birds, animals and collaged forms.
In 1931, alarmed at the rise of fascism, she conceived of ‘womb magic’, a feminine type of imagination intended to neutralise the ‘rampant hysterical militarism’ of the male sensibility. This idea of miraculous creativity, together with her interest in the subconscious and Jungian psychoanalysis, would inform her work for the rest of her life.
For the next few years Bard and Agar lived a charmed existence, flitting between Paris, London and Portofino. Their vibrant social circle embraced émigrés and the avant-garde: besides Surrealist house parties with André Breton, Nusch and Paul Eluard, Dylan Thomas, Oskar Kokoschka and Ezra Pound, there were trips to Juan-les-Pins with Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, Picasso and Dora Maar.
‘The Surrealists were always supposed to be immoral monsters, but I for one did not go to bed with everybody who asked me,’ she said. ‘When would I have had the time to paint?’
What made her work so fundamental to early Surrealism was her combination of the rational and the irrational. Nature was the starting point for her imagination. She would go on beachcombing adventures and use the marine life, seaweed and pebbles she collected to inform her dreamlike works.
That element of chance and discovery — how a leaf might form the outline of a woman’s body, or a rock look like a prehistoric monster — was countered by her firm devotion to abstraction. She once said we all walk on two legs, ‘and for me, one is abstract, the other surreal’.
‘Agar’s works were so unique that they didn’t fit into any specific movement,’ observes Christie’s specialist Stephanie Garcia.
In a text titled ‘Am I a Surrealist?’ Agar wrote about the fine balance between abstraction and Surrealism that informed her practice as ‘a revelation of what is concealed in the hide-and-seek of life, a mixture of laughter, play and perseverance’.
In the post-war years, Agar continued to work and was exhibited, but she remained the most under-represented of the British Surrealists. Garcia cites Return of Europa, above, from 1971, as ‘an example of Agar’s work at its best. Agar herself mentioned it as a personal favourite prior to her show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1999. It is ebullient, daring and brilliant.’
Agar was still innovating and exploring new media right up until her death in 1991, but had little interest in self-promotion. Her humorous response in 1990 to hearing that she had been elected to Britain’s most illustrious art institution was typical. ‘I’d always rather laughed at the Royal Academy,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t have had Surrealists at one time.’
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As a result, notes Millar, her paintings are still very affordable — though that might change. A stunning 2021 retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery revealed Agar’s uncanny eye. ‘That exhibition really surprised people,’ says the specialist. ‘They saw a woman ahead of her time, who made art to please herself.’