Summary

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