‘I see nothing incompatible in that, indeed we walk on two legs, and for me, one is abstract, the other Surreal – it is point and counterpoint’.
Polymathic painter Eileen Agar (1899-1991) was naturally drawn to collage, a means of tying together her wide-ranging – seemingly disparate – artistic interests. An eccentric childhood in Argentina foreshadowed her life of rebellion. In 1925, she rejected the Slade School of Fine Art’s classical education, shaved her head, and ran away to Cornwall, destroying all her previous works in her wake – only to start again a year later.
Over 100 of her following works feature in Angel of Anarchy, the artist’s largest retrospective to date. The remarkable breadth in media reveals Agar’s lifelong passion for production. Yet her earliest works carry the most power, embodying the conviction and self-confidence of a forward-looking woman, seeking fulfilment beyond the life of a debutante.
A visionary in her own right, Agar was quickly appropriated by the Surrealist and abstract movements. But Angel of Anarchy perhaps neglects the post-Impressionist influences on her work too. Her most striking self-portrait is cloissionism incarnate – thick colour and linework lent from Van Gogh’s La Berceuse (1889), with the assertive gaze of Émile Bernard’s La Grandmère (1887). Even The Sower (1937) surely gestures to Van Gogh’s 1888-1889 series of the same name, though this is never mentioned.
Yet her body of work escapes any single style or designation. The exhibition’s companion podcast pits her as the ‘Belle Epoque Baby’. Her century-spanning career, persisting through political and artistic movements, ensures her works have a unique universality.
Challenging her surrealist contemporaries, Agar opted for natural over found human objects in her 1930s collages. Grounded thus, her mystical notion of ‘womb magic’, the creativity and imagination of womanhood, seems even more intriguing. Her seemingly conflicting interests only harmonise in her work.
Agar’s hybrid Apocalyptic Head (1963) combines abstract motifs and classical mythology – coupled with her then-preferred ‘paint-pouring’ technique – to discuss shocking contemporary politics as President Kennedy’s assassination. Her Maenad (1965) flips the patriarchal narrative of Greek classical myth, depicting the work’s titular ‘raving ones’ as women of total serenity.
The very head itself became a recurrent motif in the artist’s political activism. Quadriga (1935) nods to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to highlight the rising threat of European fascism. It was her most celebrated piece in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, in which Agar was amongst just thirteen women artists to exhibit.
(A quick detour upstairs leads to Whitechapel’s accompanying exhibition, Phantoms of Surrealism. Its scaled-down diorama of the 1936 exhibition, and wealth of letters, meeting minutes, and postcards, expose the crucial of women as artists, curators, and strategists of the British Surrealist movement. Beyond the likes of Leonora Carrington, these figures influenced performance art as known today.)
Travel was the artist’s vital stimulus. Her 1920s documentary-style watercolour sketches were revolutionised into monochrome photographs of French coastal rock formations, and renditions of Wiltshire and Dorset’s Neolithic landscapes in the 1930s.
Wartime London was thus a period of deep ‘physical and spiritual famine’. The pacifist who passed hours volunteering in canteens, on night fire watches, and peering from her window at warplanes couldn’t focus on art. Solemn watercolours, stripped of all abstraction, embody her war-weary heartbreak.
Fortunately, trips to Cornwall, Cumbria, and – annually, from 1953, Tenerife – would revive Agar’s artistic vigour for good, spurring her vivid acrylics, autobiography and documentary – the latter, two years before her death. Snapped in her studio, the aged artist in her studio gleams beneath her infamous Bouillabaisse hat.
‘I had been too long cut off from the world of nature, too cooped up, too cribbed and confined, and the relief of finding one’s roots responding to the quickening pulse of vegetation, the vast mountainscapes, the sea horizons, all this made me fall in love with that mountainous dew-drop in the ocean and I revived and could work again’.
Whitechapel’s airy curation reflects Agar’s own need for natural and artistic respite. But Angel of Anarchy’s greatest merit is its frequent, direct citation of Agar’s words. Allowed to articulate herself, her intelligence and passion for art is self-evident. But these final words are particularly poignant, offering a glimmer of hope for us navigating our post-pandemic landscapes.