Although Eileen Agar is regarded as one of the leading British artists of the 20th century, it is perhaps significant for her place in the surrealist canon that she spent her early childhood far removed from the white cliffs of Dover in Spanish-speaking Argentina. By the time the family had returned to England in 1906, Agar was already showing an aptitude in art. This was encouraged, and having studied under Leon Underwood and at the Slade School of Art, she went on to Paris where she lived and worked between 1928 and 1930. Here, she met many of the leading artists of the day, including André Breton and Paul Eluard whom she would later photograph. Agar’s prodigious photographic output of more than 1,000 negatives is now housed in Tate Archive, including some remarkable surrealistic images taken during the latter part of the 1930s. There are African masks, disconcerting shots of Eileen on the beach, and shadows caught on ocean- going liners. However, I think the ones of rocks at Ploumanach in Brittany with their human-like shapes are particularly striking. Some appear as if profiles of faces whilst others, which Agar titled such as Bum and Thumb Rock, are more sexual in character. All were taken in 1936, which was a significant date both for Agar and for English art as she and her fellow travellers entered the international art scene with a splash (or should that be a dollop)!
Agar’s name became synonymous with the new avant-garde art movement, then sweeping through Europe, when she appeared in the seminal International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries, London, 11 June to 4 July 1936 organised by Roland Penrose and Herbert Read. Here, she exhibited her now most recognised surrealist work The Angel of Anarchy (a version of which is housed in Tate’s collection) alongside work by European artists such as Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. The exhibition caused quite a stir as surrealist figures invaded Trafalgar Square and Salvador Dalí almost suffocated whilst giving a lecture in an old fashioned deep-sea diving suit. He appears - dressed more soberly - in a famous photograph of artists represented in the exhibition with Eileen Agar sitting on the front row of the group. More than 25,000 people visited the exhibition, which was a record for a commercial gallery of its day.
Although Agar’s partner was the Hungarian poet, Joseph Bard, she had embarked on a passionate affair with artist and fellow photographer Paul Nash in 1935 which lasted until 1944. The letters detailing their relationship are also housed in Tate Archive (TGA 8712) as are other aspects of Agar’s life and output (TGA 9010). It seems highly appropriate that Agar’s photographs are housed in the same repository as Nash’s photographic output as one can discern definite areas of common interest in their surrealist views of nature. Some of their output can be viewed and images ordered via Tate Images web pages. What is the most surreal thing that you have ever seen? TGA 9222
Written by Adrian Glew