Eileen Agar - Biography and Legacy
British Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor
Buenos Aires, Argentina
London, United Kingdom
Biography of Eileen Agar
Childhood and Education
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.
Agar's formal artistic education began when she returned to London, but true to her independent spirit, she quickly rejected the formal approach of the Byam Shaw School of Art in Kensington (where her mother had enrolled her). Seeking a more progressive course of study, she enrolled at the Brook Green School in Hammersmith, and immediately met a group of like-minded students including Cecil Beaton and Henry Moore; in 1921, Agar began studies at the Slade.
It was during this period that she met fellow-student Robin Bartlett, with whom she traveled to Paris in 1924. The couple married in November of the following year but the relationship would not last; Agar later remarked that "the tie between us was for me - uninitiated as I was in the mysteries of sex - only an exploration, though being young I had just cast a romantic glamour on the liaison."
Around the time that her marriage dissolved, Agar met the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard. Seven years older than her, he had a profound impact on the direction of her art and on the course of her personal life, introducing her to a literary and artistic circle including Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats. In 1927, Bard ended his marriage and he and Agar became a couple, moving the following year to Paris. Settling in her own studio-space, Agar felt "reborn": it was at this time that she was exposed to the styles and movements which would most profoundly influence her work, including Cubism, the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuşi, and, most importantly, the Surrealist movement then centered on Paris, spearheaded by André Breton and Paul Éluard. Agar's art moved quickly away from figurative representation, and she began to place emphasis on visualizing the products of her imagination, as is evident from works of this period such as Three Symbols (1930). At this time, Agar's practice was dominated by painting.
Agar's interest in Surrealism was consolidated after her and Bard's return to London around 1930, when she became involved with the short-lived literary magazine The Island, Bard serving as literary director while Agar financed the magazine and contributed artworks. In 1933, at the prompting of her friend Henry Moore, she joined the London Group, an artists' collective which had emerged partly out of the Vorticist movement in the 1910s, and was focused on furthering the cause of avant-garde art in Britain. Around this time, Agar held her first one-woman exhibition, with works showing the strong influence of Surrealism. That influence deepened following her meeting with the painter Paul Nash in 1935, during one of her and Bard's summer-holidays to Dorset. Nash and Agar become lovers despite her ongoing relationship with Bard (a fact which he unhappily tolerated), and Nash introduced Agar to the idea of the 'found object'; much of her work from this point on is collage and bricolage-based.
Travel would have a profound impact on Agar's career. During a 1936 trip to Brittany, for example, she photographed the Ploumanac'h Rocks, leading to a series of photographs including the comic Bum and Thumb Rock, and to her embrace of natural and organic forms as motifs in her work. She once stated: "the earliest forms of Nature to a painter are studies in pure abstract design. I must go back to these forms and create design out of what the scientist tells us." Her social life during the 1930s was also the stuff of bohemian legend. During one summer in 1937, she and Bard first holidayed on the Fal River in Cornwall with the Surrealist couple Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, and with Henry Moore and his partner Irina Radetsky, before moving on to Mougins, France, in the company of Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Paul and Nusch Eluard, and Paul Nash, to join Pablo Picasso and Man Ray at the Hotel Vaste Horizon. This was reportedly a time of wild partying, with Agar subsequently recalling that all the guests decided to swap first names one night, with fines due to anyone who forgot to use the new monikers correctly. Agar was also photographed at this time dancing on the rooftops in Mougins in a transparent dress; of the Surrealists' dress-code and life-style, she would later remark "the punk rockers of the seventies and eighties were anticipated in their peacock plumes by the Surrealists, some forty years before."
While she never explicitly described herself as a Surrealist, Agar was linked with the movement in the eyes of both critics and the public. She was also part of the English Surrealist Group founded in 1936 - along with Herbert Read, Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, David Gascoyne, and others - and had the distinction of being the only British woman represented in the famous 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Perhaps surprisingly, this show was more popular with general audiences than with reviewers, some of whom were caustic in their appraisals. As part of the Surrealist Group, Agar helped to support the works of artists in other countries over the following years: during World War II, for example, she and Bard organized a dinner in honor of their Jewish artist-friends such as Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, and László Moholy-Nagy, all of whom were in the middle-stage of their flight from continental Europe to the United States. In preparation for the dinner, Agar and Bard created what was described as a "Surrealist table", with a center-piece formed of hanging flowers, fruits, and crackers.
The impact of World War II was deeply felt by Agar, who took a step back from art to engage in various patriotic duties: she served as a canteen assistant, for example, preparing and serving food and washing floors, and also worked as a fire-watcher at night. In 1940, in the midst of global political uncertainty, Agar and Bard married, perhaps to prove to each other - and to themselves - the strength of their devotion, or simply to bring a modicum of stability to their lives. This was also the period of Surrealism's greatest impact in Britain - of the New Apocalypse movement in literature, for example, centered on writers like Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas - and by the end of the war Agar's reputation was firmly established. She made appearances on television to support the British Surrealist movement, including as an interviewee on the 1948 documentary The Eye of the Artist. It was during a discussion of her practice on this program that Agar displayed one of her various 'Surrealist hats', Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse (1936).
Whereas the middle period of Agar's career had been dominated by collage and sculpture-based work, towards the end of her life she returned to painting, partly after discovering acrylic paint. Of this new compositional material she remarked: "It is very versatile, can be used as impasto, with palette knife, or a thin wash [which] gives wonderful glazes."
A defining event of these later years was the death of Agar's husband in 1975. Joseph Bard's fifteen-year-long illness had taken a toll on both of them, and for the last few years of his life, Agar had devoted herself primarily to his care. After Bard's death, however, Agar, already in her mid-seventies, began to refocus attention on her work, which became increasingly autobiographical. She was still surrounded by an eclectic group of literary and artistic figures, and in 1986 modelled dresses for the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. She stated that "the Miyake designs were like new masks, which released the wearer from him or herself." In her late eighties, Agar wrote and published a biography, A Look at My Life (1988); shortly afterwards, she was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. On November 7, 1991, Eileen Agar died, a month shy of her 92nd birthday.
The Legacy of Eileen Agar
Eileen Agar helped to shape the development of Surrealism in Britain, a contribution made all the more impressive by the fact that she was one of only a few women associated with the movement. Her work continues to be exhibited in galleries all across the world, while the impact of her aesthetics can also be seen in the work of contemporary artists crafting their own versions of Surrealism, such as Beth Hoeckel, Frank Moth, and Charles Wilkin. Agar's influence is also apparent in the world of fashion, with some of today's leading designers turning to the example of Surrealism to create clothes from solid materials and found objects, such as Hussein Chalayan's 2000 'coffee-table skirt' (made of wood), Martin Margiela's 2009 'wig coat', and Mary Katrantzou's 2011 lampshade-inspired dress.