Agar wrote that Three Symbols was her first imaginative essay into Surrealism. It was painted while she was living in Paris with her future husband, Joseph Bard, between 1928-30. There she had lessons with the Czech painter Frantisek Foltyn (1891 - 1976) and met artists and poets, including André Breton (1896-1966) and Paul Eluard (1895-1952), who were already champions of Surrealism.
Agar was aware that her work needed a new direction and it was in this work that she began to move towards a more dedicated surrealist style. In this painting she combined three concepts, each represented by architecture. She explained,
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. (Agar, p.93)
The painting was first exhibited in 1964 at a retrospective exhibition entitled 'Paintings and Collages 1930-1964' at the Brook Street Gallery with the title Flying Pillar. Agar, however, claimed later that year that she preferred the original title, Three Symbols, which refers to all three elements (conversation of 21 December 1964).
Eileen Agar, A Look at My Life, in collaboration with Andrew Lambirth, London 1988, pp.93, 201.
Ann Simpson, with David Gascoyne and Andrew Lambirth, Eileen Agar 1899-1991, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1999, pp.18, 32, no.12, reproduced plate 3, in colour.