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Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy at Leeds Art Gallery- Review

Eileen Agar’s work will be like a lightning bolt to your artistic soul. If you have not heard of her before this is your chance. Her work crosses mediums, subjects, styles, movements, borders and form – creating an incredible tapestry of work that defies definition, whilst also possessing an incredible sense of unity. Instead of restricting herself, she opens her entire world for the audience to explore. If you get the chance to see any of her work grab it with both hands and dive into these fascinating works for yourself. Her exhibition on show at Leeds Art Gallery presents an odyssey of work from an artist whose legacy needs to be revitalised.

Striking, multifaceted and enigmatic, the exhibit’s namesake, the sculpture ‘Angel of Anarchy’, bombards colour, texture and form; at you. Its name is exactly what I would imagine Agar to have been like, ethereal yet disruptive, captivating yet mysterious. Colourful fabrics, sculptural elements, jewellery, shells and feathers all adorn the mannequin-esque head in an incredible display of Agar’s interdisciplinary approach.  It was created in 1940 (initially cast from the head of her husband), whilst she was forty-one, at the pinnacle of her long career spanning from the 1930s to the 1990s, and is the follow up to the sculpture ‘Angel of Mercy’. In it, we can also uncover her skill for assembling and pairing elements of form and colour, which are perhaps more explicit in her assemblages such as ‘Marine Object’ and ‘Fish Basket’. 

‘Angel of Anarchy’ 1936 & ‘Angel of Mercy’ 1934
Picture credit: artcornwall.org

Motifs are present everywhere you look in her work, and the more you look the more you will see. The above-mentioned assemblages provide an insight into her fascinating relationship with the ocean and display her engagement with the organic world. It was a place she cherished and visited often throughout her life: collecting from it, photographing it and using it as a creative muse. Channelling her inner child she would gather shells, driftwood and anything else she could find. Whilst this is only speculation, I believe this connection mirrors her art, the constant movement of the tides echo’s her urge to move forward and change, whilst also being anchored together by its strength and certainty. At once the ocean is as ancient but also constantly new and moving, which can be seen in her work through her focus on timelessness and to lesser extent antiquity.

Photography followed Agar throughout her career, she was capitated by it, the rawness, the honesty, the matter-of-factness. The exhibition showed a collection of her nature photography, where she was most at home, the beach. There is a haunting timelessness to her photographs series, ‘Rocks in Ploumanach’, the black and white make them feel unearthly, at first glance you would perhaps think they were new photos from some undiscovered planet- but in fact, they are over eighty years old, at a time when photography was not as reputable as an artistic medium. This is reflected in her willingness, or lack of, to show off the work, as she was hesitant to exhibit it and herself did not consider it a part of her holistic body of work. Whilst the Leeds show focused on nature photography, she also has a body of non-artistic work(often still nautical themed) which is most definitely worth exploring to understand the forces behind her complex mind. 

‘Lewis Caroll with Alice’ 1961
Picture credit: Wikiart

The most constant medium throughout Agar’s career, painting, provides a crystalline lens through which to see how she interacted with the art world at large. The kaleidoscopic variety brings together two of the major movement of the early twentieth century, cubism and surrealism. ‘Lewis Carol with Alice’, a piece inspired by Alice’s wonderful adventures, clearly shows this intersection. Tile like patterns emerges from the piece to provide a sense of balance and interoperability to the works surrealist elements. Basing it off of a surrealist masterpiece and then pushing further, Agar begins to question the role the author has with his characters.

Surrealism largely concerned itself with the role the unconscious played in art, engaged by the theories of Freud and Lacan. I think that Agar is applying this rubric to the act of creation itself and reflecting on the subconscious relationship between art and artist. As Agar’s body of work feels like such a clear reflection of her own process of artistry this piece, to me, serves as a reminder by her that our psychology is embedded in our art. I have tried to divide this article by artistic medium, which has been an impossible task but nonetheless has highlighted the impossibility of defining such a fascinating figure.

‘Bride of the Sea’ 1979 Picture credit: ArtUK

The piece ‘Bride of the Sea’, a combination of painting and collage painted whilst she was eighty years old only exemplifies the futility of defining her. Surrealism is still clearly a continuous influence throughout her career as shown in this piece. The use of symbolism, from the faces, fish, foliage and boat is turned on its head through a transformation into abstract forms. Once more the nautical imagery, and focus on organic forms are present, creating a sense of unity within her artistic body as a whole. With each piece of Agar’s work, I explore I find something new, something unexpected and yet something familiar – I would urge you to explore some of her works and see which ones resonate most with you, you will definitely be surprised.

So far, I have tried to let Agar’s work speak for itself, however, it is difficult for me to also look past the fascinating life she lived. Born in Argentina to a wealthy family she has always had a worldly and cosmopolitan lifestyle. She mingled with Picasso and lived in Virginia Wolf’s former house- she had a vivid love of life. However privileged her background was the art world still struggled to accept her. The surrealist circles looked down on women, and her often eclectic art process put off galleries. Whilst she did enjoy relative success the barriers in place for women in art stopped her from gaining the notoriety she truly deserved, which is why I think it is important to sound the trumpets for her and highlight her genius and ground-breaking work. If you are at all intrigued, I urge you to explore some of her work, whether that be in person or online. She is sure to, at the very least, ignite a spark of creativity within you.

Written by Noah Collier