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Issue 221

Eileen Agar Parodies the Surrealist Muse

Agar has been widely associated with the European avant-garde movement but, as Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective makes clear, she sought to define no one’s image but her own

BY Juliet Jacques in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 14 JUN 21

As Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Angel of Anarchy’ retrospective makes clear, Eileen Agar never chose to be a surrealist. Rather, her work was chosen for the influential 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at London’s New Burlington Galleries in 1936 by the artist Roland Penrose and critic Herbert Read, leading her into a lifelong association that has masked the complexities of her relationship with the movement. Spanning the artist’s 70-year career, ‘Angel of Anarchy’ situates Agar not just within British surrealism, which drew various talented female painters into its orbit, nor within French surrealism, with its notorious positioning of women as objects of fascination. Rather, it highlights her efforts to combine aspects of surrealism and cubism into a body of work that challenged the male dominance of both movements and was, above all, profoundly individualistic.

eileen agar angel of mercy
Eileen Agar, Angel of Mercy, 1934, collage and watercolour on plaster. Courtesy: © Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images

Surrealism’s international scope was important to Agar, who was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish father and American mother. Rejecting her academic training at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, she moved to France in 1925, where she developed an interest in European modernism and the avant-garde. She took painting lessons from Czech cubist František Foltýn and, in 1929, met surrealist authors André Breton and Paul Éluard, and artist Max Ernst. Two of Agar’s works – Object (1936) and Quadriga (1935) – were included in the Surrealism monograph accompanying the 1936 exhibition, in which Read and fellow critic Hugh Sykes Davies argued that, rather than being a revolutionary new movement, literary surrealism was an outgrowth of 19th-century British romanticism and children’s writing. This was a contentious opinion, going against Breton’s future-facing doctrine of automatism and objective chance, but one Agar shared: the label for Lewis Carroll with Alice (1961) explains that she acknowledged Carroll, as well as William Blake and Jonathan Swift, as proto-surrealists. The painting itself demonstrates her extraordinary use of colour, with patterns in gradients of blue and turquoise that blur the outlines between the writer and his character. In a middle ground between the figurative and the abstract, the work leaves the viewer unsure as to whose head is whose, and uncertain whether the distinction even matters.

eileen agar muse of construction
Eileen Agar, Muse of Construction, 1939, oil on canvas, 126 × 126 cm. Courtesy: © The Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images

Agar was sceptical of the surrealists’ ability to access the unconscious mind and exasperated by their treatment of women as vessels for transforming human (i.e. male) consciousness. Repeatedly, she found ways to subvert the concept of ‘the muse’. She used her lover, Hungarian émigré author Josef Bard, as the model for her sculptures Angel of Mercy (1934) and Angel of Anarchy (1936–40) – plaster-cast busts adorned with decorative objects and fabrics. Later, she cited Pablo Picasso as her inspiration for Muse of Construction (1939), softening the sharp angles of the cubist’s style to depict a two-faced figure, half in shadow, as if to comment on the duality of becoming an object of interest – or desire – to the great male painters of the time.

eileen agar ladybird
Eileen Agar, Ladybird, 1936, Gelatin silver print with gouache and ink, 76 × 51 cm. Courtesy: the Murray Family Collection, © The Estate of Eileen Agar; photograph: Chris Harrison

While the exhibition brings in Agar’s sculpture, photography and fashion design, its revelation is her skill in portraiture. Most notable, however, are the works in which Agar asserts her own sexuality, and that of women more broadly. In her autobiography, A Look at My Life (1988), she observed: ‘[Surrealist] men were expected to be very free sexually, but when a woman […] adopted the same attitude […] the hypocritical upset was tremendous.’ Ladybird (1936), a black and white photograph taken by Bard, features Agar in an act of defining her own image, her body covered in a transparent material and subsequently annotated with lines, spots and stars. It is a vital work in a retrospective that displays Agar’s stylistic range and critical thinking and insists she deserves to be remembered for far more than her contribution to the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936.

'Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy' is on view at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 29 August. 

Main image: Eileen Agar, Alice with Lewis Carroll, 1961, oil on canvas. Courtesy: ©The Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.