Who are they?

Who is Eileen Agar?

Meet the artist who found objects and turned them into surrealist masterpieces

Some artists like to paint what they can see, while others prefer to use their imagination. Artists from the surrealism movement were fans of making art from their imagination, sometimes using their dreams as inspiration. Eileen Agar was one of these artists.

What type of art did Eileen Agar make?

Agar was born in 1899 in Argentina. Her mother was American and her father was Scottish and they moved to London when she was around twelve years old.

She was a British surrealist painter and object-maker. She was mostly interested in painting and ‘assemblage’ art. Assemblage is where you put together different objects you’ve found and turn them into new ones.

She said: ‘Very early on I liked doing collage and making objects, that sort of thing. It very often frees you rather than sticking to one thing. If you stick to one, just painting, you lose ideas. But if you play about with other things they bring you into conflict with other ideas.’

Eileen Agar was keen to make art that everyone could appreciate.

Where did she find her materials?

Eileen Agar did lots of travelling and lived in different countries. One day while she was watching some fishermen in France, she noticed there was a pot stuck in one of their nets. She asked them if she could have it. The pot turned out to be a Greek amphora, a special type of vase that was 2000 years old.

She used it as the main part of her famous sculpture Marine Object. Inspired by the sea, she stuck other found items onto the sculpture. Whenever she was on holiday she enjoyed beachcombing. Beachcombing means looking on the sand for interesting shells and objects washed up by the sea.

Marine Object also has a ram’s horn that she found in the countryside. Adding a treasure she found in the country to a sculpture about the sea gave the finished artwork a surreal twist.

Next time you go for a walk, why not look out for interesting stones or shells to use in your artwork?

Did Eileen Agar have a favourite type of art to make?

Eileen Agar
Angel of Anarchy (1936–40)

Inspired by her mum who loved wearing big hats for special occasions, Eileen enjoyed making hats that had a surreal, fantasy theme. One of her most famous creations was a straw hat. She painted red fingernails onto a pair of fashionable gloves and stuck them on the hat. She also made a ceremonial hat to wear while eating bouillabaisse, a type of fish stew. She stuck on pieces of coral painted in bright colours, two starfish and a giant fish bone.

Eileen Agar used the feathers from a headdress her mum used to wear to make a sculpture of a head modelling a flamboyant hat. The Angel of Anarchy was made from plaster and was covered in fabric and collage materials. She had to make the sculpture twice because the first version got lost on its way back from an exhibition in Amsterdam, but she didn’t mind making it again. She added a blindfold to this version to reflect the uncertainty of the time. She made it in 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War.

Why not try making your own Eileen Agar inspired surrealist hat? You could stick a pair of washing up gloves onto a hat you already own or another unexpected object.

Was she a photographer too?

Eileen Agar took so many photographs that she also became admired for her photography. For her taking photos was like keeping a diary. She described them as ‘a look at my life’.

Eileen Agar enjoyed taking photos on her travels of the architecture and landscapes she saw. She also took portraits of her fellow surrealist artist friends like Man Ray and Pablo Picasso. When she died in 1991 at the age of 91, her photos were donated to Tate to keep in the archives.

Agar took these photos of rocks when on holiday in Brittany in northern France. She was amazed at the animals, faces and body parts she could see in the nature rock formations. Can you see an animal in the photo below?

Next time you go out, see if you can see any faces or animal shapes in the surroundings.

She also took photos at home. This is a photo she took of her cat, Bella.

Eileen Agar
Photograph of Bella the cat sitting up ([c.1936])
Tate Archive

What type of painting did Eileen Agar do?

Artists often change and develop their work over time. When she first started painting Agar wasn’t a surrealist artist, but her paintings became more surreal over time. One of her early paintings was also her biggest. This is her painting The Autobiography of an Embryo.

The painting is so big that it’s split into four sections. Some of the things you can see in the colourful painting are patterns similar to the one on the greek vase she found caught in the fishing net, plants, fossils, shells and animals. She was fascinated by fish and had her own aquarium. She was also intrigued by the way fossils hold their own stories, referring to them as ‘signals of time.’

Eileen Agar described The Autobiography of an Embryo as art that ‘celebrates life'. She said: 'not only a single one, but life in general on this particular and moving planet'.

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