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