Eileen Agar

The Autobiography of an Embryo


On display at Tate Modern

Oil paint on board
Support: 914 x 2130 mm
frame: 1010 x 2225 x 80 mm
Purchased 1987


This complex and multi-coloured composition was painted by Agar in 1933-4, while she was living at 47 Bramham Gardens, Earls Court, London. Although not yet part of the Surrealist movement she was aware of ideas being promulgated by the group. Her idiosyncratic juxtaposition of ideas and images, which had first emerged in Three Symbols (Tate T00707), was developed further in The Autobiography of an Embryo.

The horizontal painting is divided into four sections with a decorative border running along the top and bottom of the canvas. The composition is reminiscent of the arrangement of a classical wall painting, with winged putti on top of the dividing columns. A Greco-Roman influence is also evident in the abstract shapes and patterns. Draped figures, which recall antiques statues, and the geometric patterns similarly echo the decoration on ancient Greek vessels.

Such an array of symbols evokes a cultural heritage. In the second section the head of a African woman resembles African sculptures and a head seen in profile refers to Italian Renaissance portraiture. More specifically, the squat figure who appears twice in the first two sections, represents Ubu, a character in the French play of 1896 by Alfred Jarry. These quotations are combined with modern elements, such as the brick wall in the second section and the graffitti-like head on the far right.

Organic and biological forms run through the composition. Agar may have taken her lead from the Czech painter Franticek Foltyn, who taught her in Paris, and who incorporated similar motifs into his work. Shells and winged forms are combined with plant-like structures, and circular shapes suggest fossils, cells or embryonic forms. Agar apparently kept a fish tank in the 1930s and was intrigued by the aquariums at the zoos in London and Naples. In her autobiography (pp. 84-5) she noted that when living in Paris she had frequently visited the Jardin des Plantes, where she became fascinated by 'the bones of that protobird, the Archaeopteryx'. This may relate to the winged structure in the third segment. She added, 'I was enthralled by fossils, their muted colour and embedded beauty. They reach us as signals in time, isolated objects which take on the importance of a problem resolved at some moment far back beyond the mists of human memory. I learnt about the secrets of animal structure and from there my thoughts led easily to the problem of human structure' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.240). This connection was made more concrete when Agar discovered that 'human foetuses have gills for about 12 weeks because in the evolution of our species we went though an amphibian stage' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.240).

Agar saw the increasing interest in the unconscious in European art as establishing 'the dominance of a feminine type of imagination over the classical and more masculine order.' She continued, 'Apart from rampant and hysterical militarism, there is no male element left in Europe for the intellectual and rational conception of life has given way to a more miraculous creative interpretation, and artistic and imaginative life is under the sway of womb-magic' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.239).

Agar, who never became a mother herself, saw the painting in universal terms. She described it as 'a celebration of life, not only a single one, but Life in general on this particular and moving planet.' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.240). The use of familiar, generalised images was a deliberate device used by Agar. She explained, 'I wanted to make it into a story as if told to a child, not into a scientific thesis' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.240).

Further reading:
Eileen Agar in collaboration with Andrew Lambirth, A Look at My Life, London 1988, pp.234-5.
Ann Simpson, with David Gascoyne and Andrew Lambirth, Eileen Agar 1899-1991, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1999, pp.39-42, no.20, reproduced in colour plate 5 and on jacket.
Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.237-41, reproduced p.237.

Chloe Johnson
September 2001

Display caption

Agar saw reproduction, or ‘womb magic’, as an important component of the feminine imagination. In this work she evoked the development of an embryo. Each of the four sections mixes symbols of life and death, and images of marine plants and animals. Examples of so-called primitive and ancient arts allude to the beginning of culture. As these elements are embedded within the dense layers of the painting, they seem to suggest memories of collective experience that the embryo carries into the world.

Gallery label, August 2013

Catalogue entry

T05024 The Autobiography of an Embryo 1933–4

Oil on board 914 × 2130 (36 × 83 7/8) Inscribed ‘AGAR’t.l. and ‘AGAR | 1933–34’ on backboard t.r.
Purchased from Birch and Conran Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Birch and Conran Fine Art 1987
Exh: Eileen Agar: A Retrospective, Birch and Conran Fine Art, July–Aug. 1987 (5, repr. on back cover in col.)
Lit: Andrew Lambirth, ‘Introduction’, Eileen Agar: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Birch and Conran Fine Art 1987, [pp.4–5], repr. on back cover (col.); Eileen Agar, A Look at My Life, in collaboration with Andrew Lambirth, 1988, pp.234–5; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.67, repr. (col.); Liz Brooks, ‘Seaside Surrealism’, Art Monthly, no.121, Nov. 1988, p.27; Fiona Baddeley, ‘Eileen Agar’, in Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins and Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, 1989, p.166,repr. p.156 (col.)

‘The Autobiography of an Embryo’ is a complex, multi-coloured composition, divided into four sections, with a decorative border at top and bottom. In each of the sections recognisable elements are combined with abstract shapes and patterns. The many circular motifs in the painting, though abstract, suggest allusions to scientific imagery, particularly where the circular shapes contain what appear to be cellular or embryonic forms. These allusions are reinforced by the reference to an embryo in the work's title, which, it seems, was intended by the artist to be understood quite literally: in conversation with the compiler on 28 July 1987, Agar said that the painting was ‘a celebration of life’, and that it dealt with the story of the ‘beginnings of a human being’.

Embedded in the painting's abstract or quasi-abstract shapes is an eclectic range of recognisable forms. In the first section, reading from left to right, there are three tropical fish (one speckled, two striped), a rope (bottom left) and a net (bottom right), which is scraped into the paint with a sharp point. In conversation with the compiler on 17 December 1987, the artist said she often used darts to achieve such an effect in paintings of this period. At the top left is a small skull and scythe, painted in white on a black background, representing Death as a reaper. In the upper right, there is a grey figure which appears to combine the silhouette of the character Ubu from Ubu Roi (1896) by the French author Alfred Jarry, with details taken from a range of antique or primitive art: the coloured areas above the figure's head suggest a feathered headdress; the circular breast shapes recall archaic figurines; and the linear birds and geometric patterns found in the centre of the figure's body recall the decoration of ancient Greek pottery of the eighth century BC. Below is a second grey figure, semi-transparent or ghostlike. Its body is similar to that of a sixth-century BC Greek kouros, while, together with its fan-or fishtail-like head, it recalls the main figure in a painting by Max Ernst, ‘Woman, Old Man and Flower’, 1924 (repr. Max Ernst, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1991, no.69 in col. See also Ernst's use of a fan as a headdress in his collage ‘The Chinese Nightingale’, 1920, repr. ibid., no.41.). According to the artist, the grey hand at the bottom right of the left-hand panel was based upon her own hand (she traced the shape of her right hand onto the painting support). The presence of this hand may allude to palmistry and the belief that the lines on the palm reveal an individual's character and fate.

Near the top left of the second section is a figure which resembles a classical statue. The lines of the woman's flowing drapes are scrapped into the paint, as are those immediately to the left, which suggest grasses or marine plants. To the right of the figure is a church steeple with a cross. Below is a head of a black woman, her hair covered by a white scarf; and below her is a multicoloured shape, identical in outline to that of the Ubu-like personage in the first panel. This second figure is depicted with bands of colour and appears to contain the shape of either a guitar or a guitar-shaped ancient figurine from the Cyclades. The central area of the second section has two disc shapes (according to the artist, paper cut-outs were used to create the circle shapes in T05024). The first is decorated with a graduated spectrum of the colours of the rainbow and contains what may be a cluster of cells. The second is partly filled with a biomorphic or cellular shape, possibly an embryo. To its right is a postcard-sized image of a female head seen in profile. The outline of the head recalls portraits of the early Italian Renaissance, though the figure is painted in yellow, green and brown, and has a black circle in the forehead. Below is an indistinct figure, while above are a striped fish, cog-shapes and what appears to be a section of a brick wall. According to the artist, this was the hardest of the four sections to paint, though she did not explain why.

The third panel is dominated by circular shapes, containing both abstract patterns and, from top to bottom, an embryonic form, a bird, and ribbed curving shapes reminiscent of the tails of sea-horses. The painting's biological theme is extended by the fin- or, more likely, wing-like structures in the lower right, together with a fossil-like form. There are also references to the culture of past ages, with an indistinct draped figure, which may recall a classical statue, and a postcard-like image of a second female figure seen in profile with a patterned headdress, which again is reminiscent of portraits of the early Renaissance (or, possibly, the evocations of this genre by the late nineteenth-century French painter Odilon Redon). Towards the bottom is an ancient full-figure statue, painted in shades of grey, suggesting perhaps that the image of the statue was derived from photographs or postcards.

The fourth panel continues these different themes. The three small circles in the larger disc in the upper centre have abstract or geometric patterns and yet can be read as the eyes and mouth of a head. Below is a circle with cog forms outside it. Marine life is evoked with a shell at the top right. There is a shadowy figure at the top left, while past culture is represented by a classical statue, again painted in shades of grey (its missing arms, slightly oversized, are ‘added’ to its right). Towards the bottom left is a drawing of a smiling figure, similar in style to graffiti or child art.

Above and below these four sections are narrow borders with undulating bands of colour. The central band in both borders is yellow, with areas of dark-blue and green above and below the first panel, orange and purple above and below the second, dark-red and mid-blue above and below the third, and green and dark-blue and below above the fourth. It is possible that this use of decorative borders should be seen as related to the decorated frames and furniture produced, more than a decade earlier, by such Bloomsbury artists as Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. In conversation with the Keeper of the Modern Collection on 11 May 1988, however, the artist said that she created the wavy patterns in these borders to suggest fluidity, which she felt was in keeping with the floating environment of embryos, although, she added, she had intended nothing as specific as amniotic waters or the sea. In the top border small winged putti stand at the interstices of the sections. These putti, together with the rhythmical division of the composition into equal-sized panels, distantly recall Pompeian wall paintings. In conversation on 28 July 1987, the artist referred to the putti as ‘childish figures’, and said the painting was ‘like a story told to children’. She also said that the division of the composition into four was intended both to give order to the design and to allude to allegorical paintings on such themes as the four continents or the four seasons which showed a figure in four different guises. Later, on 11 May 1988, she added that the putti are reminders of the development of embryos into children. The fact that they are winged betokened the fact that, like all human beings, children are fated to die.

T05024 was painted in the artist's home at 47 Bramham Gardens in Earls Court, London. In conversation on 17 December 1987, Agar said she had worked intuitively, without preliminary drawings. T05024 is the largest of her paintings of the 1930s, and she felt that it was likely that she had made the painting in this relatively unusual size and shape in order to fit an existing frame. The painting is signed but not dated. However, she was confident that, at the time of her exhibition at Birch and Conran in 1987, she had been correct in remembering that it had been begun in 1933 and finished in the following year.

In its use of flatly coloured circular shapes containing organic or embryonic motifs T05024 suggests the influence of the Czech painter Franticek Foltyn who taught Agar in Paris (for comparison, see two untitled works by Foltyn reproduced in Abstraction, Creation, Art non-figuratif, Paris, no.1, 1932, p.12). Agar lived in Paris from 1927 to 1930 with the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard, whom she was later to marry. Foltyn had been a student of Adolf Loos whom Bard had known in Vienna, and Agar had lessons with him in order to learn about modern painting. In her autobiography (p.85) she wrote that Foltyn

spoke not a word of English, and his French was almost unintelligible because of a thick gutteral accent, but he spoke a certain amount of German so that Joseph could converse with him and translate his more esoteric phrases for me. Foltyn had studied the Cubists very thoroughly in a sophisticated and analytical way, though I do not think this was finally to benefit his own painting ... In spite of his linguistic disadvantages, and perhaps because this forced him to demonstrate rather than talk, Foltyn was a good teacher. Moreover, he dismissed all the ‘isms’ of the time - except Cubism or Abstraction - but especially Surrealism, which had recently surfaced in Paris. So he took me on as a willing pupil, and I learnt much more about sensitivity to form whilst trying to cultivate colour, planes and composition.

Perhaps as directly relevant to the development of Agar's style were artists associated, in particular, with the teaching schools of Albert Gleizes and Fernand Léger, who sought to infuse a sense of organic life into a late Cubist vocabulary, using curving shapes, bright colours and subtle tonal variations. These included such artists as Gleizes himself, Auguste Herbin, Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet, Léon Tutundjian and Georges Valmier. The latter executed a number of works in 1929–30 which showed cellular or embryonic shapes in the centre of circle forms, intentionally echoing scientific imagery (see, for example, his untitled works reproduced in Abstraction, Création, Art non-figuratif, Paris, no.2, 1933, p.47).

When Agar returned to England in 1930, she was searching for a new direction. ‘I had understood the lesson the Cubists were driving home’, she wrote in her autobiography, ‘though I always had the urge to develop more strange ideas’ (p.93). In Paris she had met the Surrealist poets André Breton and Paul Eluard, and she was certainly aware of the Surrealist movement, though not part of it. As an example of the new direction in her work Agar (p.93) cited in her autobiography ‘Three Symbols’, 1930 (T00707):

In it, a pillar stands for Greek culture, Notre Dame is a symbol of Christianity, and a bridge built by Eiffel (the Tower man) symbolises modern technology reaching into the future and expressing time to come. It was my first attempt at an imaginative approach to painting, and although the result was in some ways surreal, it was not done with that intention. However, Surrealism was in the air, for painters and poets in France, and later in England, were kissing that sleeping beauty troubled by nightmares; and it was the kiss of life that they gave.

Such conscious symbolism and quasi-surreal juxtaposition of disparate elements were to be developed further in ‘The Autobiography of an Embryo’.

A clue as to Agar's developing interests in the early 1930s can be found in her essay entitled ‘Religion and the Artistic Imagination’, published in the literary quarterly The Island, edited by Joseph Bard (no.4, Dec. 1931, p.102). It begins, ‘As an artist, the Earth, the Sun and the Moon have a greater significance for me than the highly rarified idea of the Holy Trinity. For natural symbolism has a greater emotional appeal to a woman than has religious mysticism’. In language which reflected the ideas of the writer D.H. Lawrence, Agar went on to discuss the emergence of ‘a new and more naturalistic mythology’:

In Europe, the importance of the unconscious in all forms of Literature and Art establishes the dominance of a feminine type of imagination over the classical and more masculine order. Apart from rampant and hysterical militarism, there is no male element left in Europe for the intellectual and rational conception of life has given way to a more miraculous creative interpretation, and artistic and imaginative life is under the sway of womb-magic. The Sun is an increasingly important symbol in the new mythology of Europe. Turner, Van Gogh, Monet, among others, have helped just as much to realise the plastic nature of this pre-eminently European symbol as any fifteenth-century painter of the Christian tradition.

This text indicates that Agar was highly conscious of her identity as a female artist, and had a specific sense of the distinctiveness of the values and mission of the female sex. An early draft of her autobiography, written c.1976, reveals that she had entertained such ideas from at least the late 1920s. In the manuscript (Chapter IV, p.95, TGA uncatalogued) she transcribed a passage from a notebook written by Joseph Bard in December 1928, purporting to describe a conversation between himself and Agar (identified as ‘Allegra’):

Joseph: Man's pride is wounded by science. He is no longer the lord of creation, the centre of the universe ...
Allegra: Christian man as the centre of power is passing, he projected his soul into women and destroyed his masculinity through science. The centre of power is passing to his creation woman, she becomes alive and will be living poetry.

Evidence, albeit post hoc, of Agar's continued interest in the symbolic aspects of female reproduction is found in a note she wrote in July 1987 for the compiler regarding what she saw as the central message of T05024. In this text, quoted in full below, Agar links the painting's theme of the beginnings of life to the modern theory of ‘re-birthing’, which she had recently come across:

A therapy used by patients and analysts is called. ‘Re-Birthing’. People for instance say they are ‘Born Again’. I believe a wild analyst called Grodeck started the idea of digging down to the roots of memory and experience by insisting that patients should and could remember their experience in the womb, and nowadays it is common for them to do so. Thus human foetuses have gills for around twelve weeks because in the evolution of our species we went through an amphibian stage.

Marcel Breuer [the architect and designer associated with the Bauhaus] told me that women are the natural surrealists as when pregnant they are very close to the strange miracles that are occuring, and that the base of their nature is the unconscious.

But in painting the ‘Autobiography of an Embryo’ I wanted to make it into a story as if told to a child, not into a scientific thesis, and in that sense the title is prophetic.

It is also a celebration of Life, not only a single one, but Life in general on this particular and moving planet.

In her autobiography (p.146), published in the following year, Agar related the anecdote about the conversation she had had with Marcel Breuer in the late 1930s, and continued, ‘Strangely enough I do not know of any Surrealist literature which mentions such an idea; although the Surrealists have explored many avenues of thought, the biology of the embryo does not seem to be among them’. Quoting this passage in which Breuer reportedly said that women were the real Surrealists because of the metamorphic changes in their wombs during pregnancy, Liz Brooks (1988, p.27), in a review of the autobiography, commented that this was an ‘ambivalent remark at best, coming from the great Modernist’, which ‘seems to be accepted by Agar at face value’:

Even before being taken up by the nascent British Surrealist group in 1936, she was developing the idea of ‘womb-magic’ - woman's special creative faculty founded in her biological nature. One of Agar's best known works ... is ‘The Autobiography of an Embryo’ (1933–4), and it is interesting that a woman who succeeded in her life in distancing herself from the biological onus of childbearing should make it into both a defining characteristic of her creative process as a female artist and a major subject of her art.

With its rich iconography and panoply of abstract shapes and patterns, T05024 is hard to interpret, at least in a narrative fashion. Quite simply, it seems as if the artist intended to include all of life, both ancient and modern, biological and cultural; and to this end she brought together a vast array of symbols and abstract patterns. Images of ancient Greek sculpture and Renaissance art, for example, can be interpreted as symbolising a western cultural heritage and its importance, while the fossils, fishes and shells may refer to human beings’ evolution from the sea. If the title is taken literally, the work seems to imply that all of these different elements are part of the generic inheritance of an individual, even while at an embryonic stage. There is no evidence to suggest that Agar was aware of, or interested in, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932, but it is at least possible that there is some sort of link between Agar's interest in embryos and this famous story, set in the future, in which human beings are hatched from incubators and conditioned to accept certain predetermined roles in society. Another possible spur to Agar's interest in biology may have been the admiration of an artist such as Henry Moore, whom she knew well in this period, for the textbook On Growth and Form, 1917 (1st ed., reprinted 1933) by the mathematician Darcy Thompson.

Agar was particularly interested in marine life and biology as a whole. She told the compiler that she kept a fish tank in the 1930s, and had often visited the aquariums in the London and Naples zoos. In her autobiography (pp.84–5) she recorded that, when living in Paris, she frequently visited the Jardin des Plantes, where she became fascinated by ‘the bones of that protobird, the Archaeopteryx, which I felt should be painted life-size’. (It is possible that some memory of this bird informed the wing-like structure in the third section of T05024.) She continued:

I was enthralled by fossils, their muted colour and embedded beauty. They reach us as signals in time, isolated objects which take on the importance of a problem resolved at some moment far back beyond the mists of human memory. I learnt about the secrets of animal structure, and from there my thoughts led easily to the problems of human structure.

Fishes and shells were to be recurrent motifs in Agar's work: in ‘Marine Collage’, 1939 (repr. Agar 1988, col. pl.3), for example, she combined images of such marine animals as watersnakes and eels with a black-and-white photograph of a classical statue, its head replaced by a cut-out image of a shell.

If T05024's zoological leitmotif reflects a personal enthusiasm of the artist's, so, too, perhaps does the painting's appearance of being like a collage. ‘Three Symbols’, 1930, showed how Agar had begun to juxtapose disparate images, though none of her other known works from the early 1930s approach the complexity of T05024. It is known, however, that Agar had begun to collect unusual objects which she used to create collages and sculptures in the early and mid-1930s. In the bathroom of her flat at Braham Gardens she kept a rope, propellor, chart and lifebelt, and used a fine fishing net as shower curtains. In her studio, ‘objects were constantly changing’, she wrote in her autobiography (p.101):

drapes and sculptured plaster heads, textures, fabrics, stone and metal shapes - throughout the thirties my studio transformed itself, it seemed, at the blink of an eye one day suggesting Magritte, the next de Chirico, and this was before I had been ‘identified’ as a Surrealist. [The painter] Julian Trevelyan ... described the room as a work of art in itself, art and life approaching and forming one pattern. I was collecting and storing all the time, surrounding myself with the raw material which would be transmuted into paintings and objects.

Above a mantelpiece she mounted an extraordinarily varied display of images and objects. As shown in a photograph taken in 1936 and reproduced in her autobiography (fig.10b), these included postcards of decorated fans and reproductions of classical sculptures and early Renaissance art. None of the latter appear to have been copied in T05024, though they are of a similar type. The display included a collage made by Agar which showed a female head seen in profile in the manner of certain early Renaissance portraits. The head is of the type found in two places in T05024.

According to the artist, T05024 was first exhibited in the 1960s. In a note to the compiler dated 10 December 1987, she wrote, ‘I find it difficult to recall exactly where ‘The Autobiography of an Embryo’ was shown in the sixties. I think it was the New Art Centre 41 Sloane Street, but it might have been at the London Group’. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to confirm this. The painting remained in an attic until rediscovered in 1987 when the artist moved house. There are no surviving photographs of the painting in situ in Agar's home.

On acquisition, it was decided to remove pieces of red paper which had come to be affixed to the work's surface accidentally and which, according to the artist, had no part in the composition. In order to glaze the work, a black box frame was constructed in consultation with the artist. This incorporates the existing moulded frame, which is painted light green and is, according to the artist, the picture's original frame.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996