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Eileen Agar

British Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor

Eileen Agar Photo

Born: December 1, 1899 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Died: November 7, 1991 - London, United Kingdom

"The unconscious must reign through the intellect."

Summary of Eileen Agar

Eileen Agar has, like many women artists, sometimes been defined by the (male) company she kept rather than her own creative output, her biography peppered with references to the great and good of modern art and literature, from Pablo Picasso to Dylan Thomas. But she was, in fact, one of the most adventurous and influential artists of the Surrealist movement in Britain, working with a prolific energy which sustained her into her late eighties. Agar's practice was diverse, moving freely through painting, photography, collage and sculpture, but was bound together by an emphasis on the germinal power of imagination, and by a love of natural and organic forms. Her memoir, A Look at My Life (1988), published shortly before her death, provided vivid insights into the lost bohemian enclaves of pre-war Paris and London, and ensured that Agar's work continued to be discussed and displayed after her death.

Key Ideas

Eileen Agar was a significant figure in ensuring the spread of the Surrealist movement from Paris to Britain during the 1930s. She was the only British woman to be represented in the ground-breaking 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, a show which ensured her fame, and which showcased a style that brought together the Surrealists' emphasis on visualizing the subconscious with a uniquely English, aristocratic kind of eccentricity.
Agar was one of a small but notable group of women attached to the Surrealist movement, also including - amongst British artists - the painter Ithell Colquhoun, the writer and artist Leonora Carrington, and the performer Sheila Legge. Artists such as Agar were able to use the Surrealist emphasis on imaginative freedom to envision worlds where gender boundaries were fluid, and where the realities of patriarchal society were less rigorously enforced.
With works such as Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, Agar brought Surrealist sensibilities to the world of fashion design, as Salvador Dalí had done with his jewelry and theatre costumes. Recognized late in her life for her experiments in this area, Agar was invited to model for the Japanese designer Issey Miyake; throughout her career, she had presented her body as the canvas for certain of her own works. In this sense, she was a trailblazer for the idea, now associated with Performance Art, that one's own life might constitute an ongoing process of creative expression.
Eileen Agar Photo

Eileen Agar was born into a wealthy British family, her mother the heir to a biscuit company, her father the manager of a successful windmill and irrigation systems company, Agar Cross. It was his business that took the family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Agar spent her early years. She later characterized her childhood as privileged and eccentric - "full of balloons, hoops and St. Bernard dogs" - and claimed that whenever the family travelled back to Britain her mother insisted on bringing a cow for milk, and an orchestra so that they would be surrounded by music. At six years old, Eileen was sent to England to attend boarding school, where her artistic potential was recognized and encouraged by a teacher. At the outbreak of World War One in 1914 she was sent briefly to attend a more rurally located institution, before being moved on again to Paris, to attend finishing school.

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