Eileen Agar – My Brush With Surrealism

When I was a teenager, I kept a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine clippings, mostly relating to art, film, music and design. There was no particular theme, other than images that caught my eye. Sometimes, choices were triggered by things I had watched on TV, heard on the radio or seen at exhibitions. But there was one photograph which I cut out for no other reason than it mentioned Surrealism, featuring the artist Eileen Agar standing next to one of her paintings.

Eileen Agar in her studio, 1977 (Photo by David Reed) – Image sourced from The Guardian)

Although I had been interested in surrealist art for a while (probably thanks to ubiquitous reproductions of Dali and Magritte), I don’t think I had heard the name Eileen Agar, nor was I aware of having seen her work. That changed, somewhat, the following year, when I visited the major retrospective of Dada and Surrealism art at London’s Hayward Gallery, where she had several pieces on display. Yet, with such a huge exhibition, I don’t recall registering the name, nor making the immediate connection with the photo I had seen some months earlier.

A few years later, I was working for Kensington & Chelsea Council, where part of my role was to assist local residents with their housing problems. One day, I received a call from a woman who was concerned about her neighbour, whom she described as the “well-known artist, Eileen Agar”. The caller thought that Ms Agar needed some assistance with her accommodation, perhaps even relocating to somewhere more suitable. Following up the call, I duly contacted Ms Agar, but when asked about her housing situation, she replied “I’m fine, thank you, as long as I have enough light to paint by.” So I respected her wish not to be bothered or troubled by the Council.

By now, the penny had dropped, and I made the connection between the name Eileen Agar, her comment about “enough light to paint by” and the photo in my scrapbook – with its enormous studio window behind her.

Soon after, I was talking to some friends who were looking for ideas that would make good subjects for TV documentaries. I suggested a couple of topics, and happened to mention Eileen Agar, who by then was probably the last surviving surrealist artist who had been directly connected to figures like Picasso, Moore, Dali, Eluard, Breton, Man Ray, Penrose et al. Certainly, she was one of the few women included in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936.

Eventually, that idea turned into a documentary, called “Colour of Dreams” directed by Susanna White, originally broadcast in 1989. It formed part of Channel 4’s series “Five Women Painters”, with an accompanying book of the same name. Ms Agar was the only artist of the five still living at the time, and was guest of honour at the preview screening I was fortunate enough to attend.

Ironically, despite not receiving the same level of recognition that most of her male counterparts did during their lifetimes, Ms Agar attracted quite a lot of attention in her final years. Apart from being included in the TV series, she was the subject of a significant retrospective exhibition, and published her autobiography, before she passed away in 1991.

On my first visit to Auckland Art Gallery a few years ago, I was reminded again of that tangential connection, when I saw Ms Agar’s mixed media collage called “Tree of Knowledge”. Within the context of a modest collection of European surrealism, this was a significant work, and immediately recalled that original cutting.

(Sadly, unless it tours Australia, I won’t get to see the current Whitechapel show, “Angel of Anarchy”.)

Next week: Getting out of town

Synchronicity

I’m not sure I fully subscribe to Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, where causally unrelated events occur at the same time, and seemingly take on a significant meaning; in many cases, a coincidence is just that. But recently I have been forced to consider the possibility that maybe Jung was right.

Over the past few months, I have been reading the 12 novels that comprise Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”. Although I had never read them before, the books were familiar to me through a BBC Radio adaptation broadcast between 1979 and 1982, and a UK television mini-series from 1997.

Last weekend, and quite unrelated, a friend posted some music on-line – recordings made by the band we were in during the early 1980s. One of the tracks was a song I had written at that time, and whose title had been inspired by Powell’s magnum opus. But I hadn’t listened to or thought about this song for nearly 40 years.

Separately, and also by coincidence, in the last couple of days I have been listening to “The New Anatomy of Melancholy”, another BBC Radio series that draws its inspiration (and title) from Robert Burton’s 17th century tract on mood disorders. This series was first broadcast in May 2020 – no doubt prompted by the onset of the global pandemic, with its lock-downs, self-isolation and increased anxiety. And now the programme is being repeated, exactly 400 years after the publication of Burton’s original treatise – and at a time when we need his sage advice more than ever.

Until now, I hadn’t appreciated how self-absorbed (obsessed?) Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is by Burton – he even ends up publishing an academic text about this prescient Elizabethan writer. On one level, Jenkins is a proxy for his literary hero (as well as being Powell’s alter ego), and much of the 12-novel sequence is a response to Burton’s analysis on the causes of, and cures for, melancholia.

All of which may or may not prove Jung’s theory, but there is for me something of a personal thread between Powell, a song I wrote, and the BBC’s recent update on Burton.

Next week: The Last Half-Mile

Cancel or Recalibrate?

In the wake (sic) of wokeness and cancel culture, it was interesting to read that Disney has decided to add a health warning of “negative depictions of cultures” to re-runs of the Muppet Show. So rather than cancel these programmes, it has chosen to (re-)contextualise the content for a contemporary audience.

I don’t have a problem with this type of labelling, or indeed on any other content, if it helps to aid understanding, generate debate, and acknowledge past lapses of taste or judgement. Especially as programmes like the Muppet Show were huge in the heyday of mass-market network television, before cable and streaming fragmented audiences into pre-defined sub-genres and segregated demographics.

Indeed, I’ve grown used to similar health warnings attached to re-runs of many BBC radio dramas, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when “social attitudes were somewhat different to today”.

But, if we continue along those lines, should we be applying similar health warnings to Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedies, French farces, Norse legends, European folklore as told by the Brothers Grimm, or Roman accounts of gladiatorial victories over their hapless victims?

In which case, I look forward to the same contextualisation (and health warnings) of any programmes that quote, cite, promote or reference key religious texts, most of which were written hundreds and thousands of years ago, yet which similarly offend our current values and societal norms.

Next week – Facebook and that news ban

Brexit Blues (Part II)

Brexit finally came into effect on January 31, 2020 with a transition period due to end on December 31, 2020. It’s still not clear whether key issues such as the post-Brexit trade agreement between the EU and the UK will be completed by then (a major talking point being imports of American chlorinated chicken….). Nor is it clear which other areas of EU laws and standards will survive post-transition. Both of which continue to cause uncertainty for British businesses and local governments that have to operate within and enforce many of these rules. Add to that the recent UK storms and floods, the post-Brexit air of racism and xenophobia, plus the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting drag on global markets and supply chains, and maybe the UK will run out of more than just pasta, yoghurt and chocolate. Perhaps those promised post-Brexit savings of £350m a week really will need to spent on the National Health Service…..

The “Vote Leave” campaign bus, 2016 (Image sourced from Bloomberg)

The seeds of the Brexit debacle were sown in David Cameron’s speech of January, 23 2013. As I wrote last year, that set in motion a series of flawed processes. Despite the protracted Brexit process, it’s now unlikely that the decision to leave will be reversed, especially as the opposition Labour Party has just been trounced at the polls. Instead, Labour continues to beat itself up over the failure of its outgoing leadership either to make a solid case in support of the Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum, or to establish and maintain a clear and coherent policy on Brexit leading right up to the December 2019 General Election. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has a huge Parliamentary majority, a fixed 5-year mandate, and a general disregard for traditional cabinet government and the delineation of roles between political advisors and civil servants. We have already seen that any form of dissent or even an alternative perspective will not be tolerated within government or within the Tory party, let alone from independent and non-partisan quarters.

Since that fateful speech of January, 2013, it’s possible to follow a Brexit-related narrative thread in film, TV and fiction. Not all of these accounts are directly about Brexit itself, but when viewed in a wider context, they touch on associated themes of national identity, democracy, political debate, public discourse, xenophobia, anti-elitism, anti-globalism, and broader popular culture.

The earliest such example I can recall is Brian Aldiss’s final novel, “Comfort Zone”, (published in December 2013), while the first truly “Brexit Novel” is probably Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” (November 2018). Somewhat to be expected, political thrillers and spy novels have also touched on these themes – Andrew Marr’s “Children of the Master” (September 2015, and probably still essential reading for Labour’s current leadership candidates); John Le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies” (September 2017); John Simpson’s “Moscow, Midnight” (October 2018); and John Lanchester’s “The Wall” (January, 2019). (For another intriguing and contemporary literary context, I highly recommend William Gibson’s introduction to the May 2013 edition of Kinglsey Amis’s “The Alteration”. Plus there’s an essay on the outgoing Labour leader in Amis junior’s collection of non-fiction, “The Rub of Time” published in October 2017.)*

Elsewhere there have been TV dramatisations to remind us how significant, important and forward-looking it was when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 – most notably the chronicling of the Wilson and Heath governments as portrayed in “The Crown”. Even a film like “The Darkest Hour” reveals the love-hate relationship Britain has had with Europe. More distant historical context can be seen in films like “All is True” and “Peterloo”.

No doubt, Brexit will continue to form a backdrop for many a story-teller and film-maker for years to come. And we will inevitably see recent political events re-told and dramatised in future documentaries and dramas. Hopefully, we will be able to view them objectively and gain some new perspective as a result. Meanwhile, the current reality makes it too depressing to contemplate something like “Boris Johnson – Brexit Belongs to Me!”

*Postcript: hot off the press, of course is “Agency”, Willam Gibson’s own alternative reality (combining elements of the “Time Romance” and “Counterfeit World” referenced in “The Alteration”) – I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward (!) to doing so….

Next week: Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk