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

Goya – allegories and reportage for the modern age

Just prior to the latest COVID-related lock down in Melbourne, I managed to visit the exhibition of drawings and prints by Goya at the NGV. Although these works were produced 200 years ago, they are still relevant today.

Goya: Two People Looking into a Luminous Room – Image sourced from NGV

Working at the time of the Enlightenment, and despite his status and reputation as a court painter, Goya still had to navigate the political oppression of both Spanish and French rulers, and the religious persecution in the form of the Inquisition.

His series of drawings and etchings reveal a very personal side to Goya’s work, combining allegory, satire, reportage, surrealism and the sub-conscience. The images provide a commentary on the horrors of war and its aftermath, while his domestic scenes on courtship, gold diggers and hapless suitors would not be out of place on Married at First Sight or The Bachelor… There’s a lot that’s familiar about these images.

The exhibition provide some insights into Goya’s working methods – from his use and development of preparatory drawings, to the different etching techniques he deployed to create the finished prints.

One drawing in particular caught my attention – a red crayon sketch entitled “Two People Looking into a Luminous Room”. It’s a remarkable image on a number of levels. The room of the title does not look like a typical building or structure. It almost resembles the bellows of a giant camera, except that photography had not yet been invented. Perhaps it refers to a type of camera obscura or similar device that Goya had seen? On the other hand, it could be a metaphor for Hell, a glimpse into the white heat of the Inferno. For me, it even suggests Goya’s prescience for the work of James Turrell. It’s a remarkable piece in an absorbing exhibition.

Next week: The Fall – always different, always the same

NGV Triennial

As Melbourne and Victoria continue to emerge from lock-down, it was great to see that the NGV International has re-opened for the summer with the latest edition of its Triennial show. And while we should all be grateful to have the opportunity to visit this exhibition in person (rather than on-line), it’s not without some shortcomings.

Refik Anadol: Quantum Memories (image sourced from NGV website)

First, the good news: no doubt it was a logistical headache to co-ordinate this exhibition while Melbourne was in strict lock-down for much of the past 10 months. Making admission free is also a wonderful public gesture given that the local population was starved of art exhibitions for most of last year – in particular, we missed out on the NGV’s winter blockbuster season.

The curators are also to be commended on assembling a diversity of artists, work and media; and for placing a great number of these new pieces among the NGV’s permanent collections, which forces visitors to assess these contemporary exhibits within the context of historic work.

But that’s probably where the positive ends.

A major drawback of this exhibition is the lack of anything truly ground-breaking, innovative or even challenging. It all felt very safe – but maybe that’s just what we needed after our extended social isolation: work that is comforting, familiar, cozy, cuddly, soothing, and certainly bright (lots of lively colours).

As a result, however, there seemed to be an emphasis of form over substance, technique over content, and scale over context. Much of the three-dimensional work felt flat and one-dimensional. Even the opening centrepiece, Refik Anadol’s “Quantum Memories” that dominates the entrance lobby, is a classic example of the “medium is the message”. Comprising a giant digital screen (incorporating a clever trompe-l’œil 3-D effect) to stream animated, computer-programmed images, ultimately gave the impression that this was all about the technology and the scale of the work. It was difficult to identify any meaning beyond mere decoration.

And unfortunately, “decorative” was a recurring theme, alongside some rather kitsch and lazy imagery – especially the digital and animated wallpaper that featured in several of the permanent galleries. These “displays” reminded me of cheesy son et lumière or pedestrian CGI effects – it may be technically adept, and even stylish to some degree, but that’s as far as it goes. Perhaps “deep” and “complex” are out of favour at the moment, as we make way for “shallow” and “simple”.

While some work might attempt to convey a more profound response, when shorn of its original context, the message is lost and the result is a void. I wasn’t necessarily looking for “deep and meaningful”, but I was hoping to be provoked or inspired. Or at least have my curiosity piqued.

Triennial? Could try harder.

Next week: Expats vs Ingrates?

Hicks vs Papapetrou

Another compare and contrast this week, and like last week, based on a current NGV exhibition – this time, head-to-head retrospectives of two Australian photographers, Petrina Hicks and Polixeni Papapetrou.

Petrina Hickson – “Peaches and velvet” (2018) – image sourced from NGV

The challenge for contemporary photographers is the ubiquity of the medium. Anyone with a smart phone can be a “photographer”. At a basic level, the technology to capture photographic images is accessible to all, and no special skill is required. Add to this the impact that advertising, magazines, fashion, portraiture, reportage and social media have had on the way we view images, and there is a risk that audiences detect no difference between what they see on a billboard poster, in an on-line news article, on Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram/Twitter or in an art gallery or museum.

In these two particular shows, I think the NGV is trying to re-establish a platform for contemporary photography as an art form, and not merely as a technical means of capturing and creating images. (Selfies, holiday snaps and wedding photos are all very well, but they ain’t necessarily art.) It’s an admirable ambition, but I’m not sure these collections are the best examples on which to build such a thesis.

Polixeni Papapetrou – “Prize Thimble” (2004) – image sourced from NGV

Both photographers produce highly stylized, almost trademark images, which reveal a very methodical and deliberate approach to their work. Everything is highly choreographed, deliberately posed and meticulously arranged – nothing is left to chance, giving an overwhelming sense of artifice. These photographs are hyperreal yet also quite literal – what you see is what you get. This is not to say they lack formal narrative or even additional meaning, but despite their obvious visual appeal, it’s hard to see much beyond the images themselves.

In Hicks’ case, as well as recurring images, arrangements and visual motifs, the works on display reveal a very defined (even limited) colour palette, especially as many tones appear washed out, almost over-exposed. While Papapetrou’s work mostly feature her own daughter, in various staged settings, some of which allude to well-known fictional stories,  historical events, myths, legends and fairy tales. Despite both these exhibitions being retrospectives, based on these selections you would be hard-pressed to say there was much in the way of artistic development – there’s a sameness to both sets of images.

Despite each photographer having a distinctive style, there are also echoes of many other photographers – notably Julia Margaret Cameron, Madame Yevonde, Claude Cahun, Meret Oppenheim, Cyndi Sherman and Polly Borland among them.

Next week: The Current State of Popular Music