The current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery showcases the work of British artist Elieen Agar. Associated with the Surrealists during their heyday, this retrospective demonstrates that there was a lot more to Agar than most people probably realise. On display are more than two hundred works in both two and three dimensions. These include paintings, drawings, collage and assemblages. Plus photographs, prints and mixed media pieces.
Born in Argentina in 1899 to a Scottish father and American mother, Agar had a long career that pretty much spanned the 20th Century. She created distinctive work that is both serious, mystical and at times playful and erotic. As she once said “Life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play.” Agar also had a fascination for the natural world. It’s ever changing forms being a constant source of inspiration and evident throughout her practice.
Agar gained a lot of life experience early on. She enjoyed- in her own words- a ‘privileged and eccentric’ upbringing. During her education, Agar was drawn towards the arts and attended Byam Shaw and The Slade, as well as learning watercolour painting under Georges William Thornley. Like other artists, she rebelled against the parameters of her upbringing, during that period of rapid change after World War One.
In 1925, she travelled to both Paris and Spain in the company of her soon to be husband, Robin Bartlett (from whom she would separate soon after meeting the writer Joseph Bard, marrying him a year later). This same year her father died and unsatisfied with her work up to this point, she destroys the bulk of it. What strength of character to decide to start again from scratch. Like some kind of rebirth.
By 1928, Agar had become acquainted with many of the great artistic and literary names of that period. Ezra Pound, Constantin Brancusi and (significant in terms of her subsequent development as an artist), the Surrealist movement’s prime movers Paul Éluard and Andre Breton. During this time she also studied abstraction with František Foltýn.
The Exhibition I- Earlier Works & Development:
‘Elieen Agar: Angel of Anarchy’ starts with her accomplished early paintings, which exhibit- among other things- Classical and abstract tendencies. But most distinctive to note are the twin influences of Cubism and Surrealism.
Her assured self portrait from 1927 in particular stood out for me, executed in a solid Post Impressionist style. It is a picture that certainly demonstrates her talent and early self confidence as an artist.
By the thirties, Agar’s eclectic practice had developed through a complex fusion of influences and stylistic experiments; using a distinctive range of mixed media approaches and combinations. In two and three dimensions, we see her working through collage and assemblage techniques to great effect. Agar recalled surrounding herself ‘with fantastic bric-a-brac in order to trigger my imagination’.
One aspect that struck me early on was the way she evolved a painterly process of layering- possibly a development from experiments with Cubism and collage. We see Agar gradually buiding up images on the picture surface; achieving an almost translucent quality in which one image is partly visible through another placed upon it. The final pictures remains fairly flat, with relatively little modelling. But they are highly sophisticated in terms of colour, texture and form.
Surrealism Versus Misogyny:
Surrealism as a tendency can be seen in the work of many of the most successful and important artists of the early to mid 20th Century- quite a few of whom Agar knew personally. However she was first labelled a Surrealist by the curators of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, in which her work was shown. Sharing their intention to manifest tthe subconscious in her art, even if disapproving of the misogyny and manipulation that occasionally revealed itself in this male dominated movement.
Unlike their more famous European counterparts, many artists who followed the Surrealist path in Britain worked in relatively obscure and humble conditions. By contrast, Agar eventually became a Royal Academician and successful in a number of creative areas. Not a household name perhaps, but an artistic presence none the less.
Today with hignsight, we can see how many of the creative women associated with Surrealism were put on pedestals or forced into the role of (usually passive) muse. This caused many to rebel and several to implode. Not just creatively. Think of the differences between the careers of Leonor Fini and Lee Miller for example. Agar endured a degree of ‘being an ornament’, but was eventually able to establish a path as an artist on her own terms.
The Exhibition II: Assemblages, Photographs & Even A Film
By the 1930s, Agar’s career was in the ascendant. We see several vitrines containing pictures, old tickets and books with illustrations. These are revealing of her wider practice and the world in which she worked. Also presented are examples of her assemblages, photographs and even a film clip.
Let’s start with the assemblages. These objects possess a poetic quality, nostalgic even. Evocative of the kind of half remembered, somewhat universal seaside memories and adventures one has as a child. Some examples look as if you might inadvertently encounter them whilst beachcoming- something Agar enjoyed doing. Getting lost in rockpools or, if you go with Jonathan Jones: ‘Fish and Chip Surrealism’.
I thought that curator Matthew Gale nailed this aspect of Agar’s practice down in a recent interview: these works produce“a spark between two objects… creating something new”, but also (have) “the hook of being entirely recognisable”. ‘Marine Object’ from 1939 is a good example, although not in this show. But we still can see a number of other assemblages. Most are small and some are tiny, but they each retain that initial spark of thought. An essence of the moment of realisation when Agar first connected each (for want of a better word) ‘component’ in her mind and then proceeded to collage them in order to create new associations and meanings.
Consider the object after which this exhibition is entitled: Angel of Anarchy (produced between 1936-1940). A mannequin dummy head bound in various sumptuous fabrics. Stifling, obscuring, restricting sight and speech. The dark sexual undertones evident here echo certain images by Magritte. In particular, The Lovers from 1928. But consider also the world’s situation at the time of it’s making. This is a work that can be read as a warning against complacency and delusion in the face of tyranny. Still as valid a message for today as it was over 80 years ago.
Mischief Making & The Wearing Of Hats:
Some of Agar’s assemblages could be worn as hats and we see pictures of the artist wearing her work- she certainly had style. “Life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play”- and so it is that there are many occasions during this exhibition where one detects an underlying element of genteel mischief. Especially if one thinks of things like a hat expressly fashioned for the consumption of Bouillabaisse.
This idea of theatrical provocation through dressing up- as Dali had famously done at the aforementioned 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition (by wearing a diving suit to the private viewing)- is one that has gained greater currency over time. You could certainly argue about its relative merits, but try to imagine Pop culture without it. As the successors of Glam and Punk still realise (including Lady Gaga): the startling and unfamiliar still manage to make people think.
This playful aspect of Agar’s appoach is apparent in the short piece of acommpanying looped newsreel that echoes through the galleries, showing the artist wearing one of her outlandish hats, anonymously snaking through a crowd in what looks like the Charing Cross Road long, long ago.
In the greatest British tradition of becoming a ‘character’- think perhaps of Gillray, Dickens or even Ealing Comedy- this little bit of film speaks volumes about how we British view our artists. I couldn’t help but substitute Agar for Margaret Rutherford in my mind’s eye. Which is a complement by the way.
The difficulties of being taken seriously as an artist (if you happen to be a woman): Bob Danvers-Walker’s patronising, yet somehow still entertaining voice-over doesn’t ask questions about any possible artistic merit of such a hat-wearing escapade. Or indeed talk about ideas of artistic provocation or confrontation. But instead frames this activity as a harmless (female) eccentricity, thereby one can argue, nullifying it’s artistic power and effect. A common response for the time? Certainly one that exemplifies the gulf between the intentions of artists and their perception by the majoriry of the general public. But I don’t think any of this wouldn’t have bothered Agar too much: however subtle, a provocation is still a provocation. “Life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play”.
Now on to a different theme. I can see why Agar was attracted to the Ploumanac’h rocks in Brittany. Her photographs using a Rolleiflex camera of these geololgical relics evoke a more primordial, one could almost say restless time. She described the rocks as ‘sculpted by the sea, that master worker of all time’. Significantly noting ‘as if nature had arranged a show of sculpture in the open air’. Obviously, these pictures also speak of the internal landscape: troubled and anxious.
The images are in monochrome, which although was probably done out of necessity, add to their mysterious quallity. Dramatically lit, their strange ambiguous shapes and tones made me think of Hanging Rock in Victoria. The enigmatic setting of Peter Weir’s 1975 film ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’.
Later on in life, Agar started to work in acrylics on the same subject and I must confess to being quite surprised at the success and clarity of the resulting paintings.
I liked Agar’s assemblages and photographs most of all. Her avid beachcoming providing enigmatic and beautiful source material, which she carefully and cleverly combined. Regarding the assemblages, due to their fragility, only a few survive today. These examples remain enigmatic and strangely utilitarian, almost functional. Found ‘at the behest of chance (they) went that way also’.
The Exhibition III: Paintings and Work in Two Dimensions:
Going back to her numerous two dimensional works on display, it is noticeable just how varied Agar’s practice remained throughout her life. Even if we consider only a few paintings.
In ‘Three Symbols’ from 1930, Agar presents a Tanguy like void which is suggestive of sky, in which objects appear to encounter each other freely floating. A good example of that famously oft-qouted maxim attributed to the Comte de Lautréamont about (nothing being as) “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. You get this sense of the ‘unexpected, combined’ here and in many of her subsequent paintings.
After the Second World War, Agar’s painting took a further shift towards the abstract.
‘Pollen’ from 1960 looks to have been the end result of a process derived from earlier ‘Automatic’ Surrealist approaches to image making. Of the kind developed by artists like Oscar Dominguez, such as Decalcomania. This technique- pressing paint between two sheets of paper to produce complex, organic shapes and textures- emphasises the abstract, by allowing the paint to partly dictate it’s own course through a controlled manipulation by the artist. This would reveal meaning in the seemingly random natural patterns that then would go on to influence the final image created by the artist. A very direct form of visual expression. Then, by stripping back the layers of enamel paint, stencilling and Frottage (a Max Ernst technique), Agar created a surface that reveals something perhaps rediscovered, looking in this case almost ecclesiastical.
Another stand out painting for me was ‘Portrait’ from 1949. This was one of Agar’s ‘poured paintings’. The reduced elements that make up the ‘face’ of the portrait are set upon a flat surface, filled with abstract forms, in order to create something suggestive of a marine environment. Any details of the figure are created by a descriptive arc of paint, possibly influenced by Greek Tangara ceramics. With a certain kind of eye, the figure (who may be Agar) ends up resembling some form of sessile sea creature.
‘Elieen Agar: Angel of Anarchy’ offers different things depending on your outlook. Well designed as a show, I felt it a timely overview of her career. As an artist somewhat on the preiphery, it offers the chance for a reappraisal of her work, so as to hopefully interest a new generation. Tellingly, her relationship with Paul Nash (through which I first encountered her work) was not in evidence. Which I thought fair as it so often tends to relegate her career to an art historical footnote.
Finally, there’s a great picture of Agar taken in later life, looking straight at the camera and holding a huge magnifying glass up to it. This image was on the front cover of her autobiography ‘A Look At My Life’. Always conscious of her own image as an artist, for the show title ‘Angel of Anarchy’, I suspect she would be pleased and raise a wry smile. After all, “Life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play.”
Elieen Agar: Angel of Anarchy runs from 19th May to 28th August 2021
(c) 2021 Gideon Hall