Final Major Project: Considering Others – Eileen Agar
“[Eileen Agar] was excited by the surrealists’ desire to paint “what goes on inside our heads” as opposed to imitating the outside world, but she was sceptical about some of their methods and more extreme beliefs. She said, “I am suspicious about the whole idea of working from dreams,” and she was also uneasy with an excitement about automatism as something that “was supposed to bypass conscious control and draw directly on the deep springs of the unconscious”. She liked to see surrealism as “the interpenetrating of reason and unreason”, and valued it for its wit, irreverence and joke-making. She would go as far as daydreaming, but she kept control of her images. She was interested in making shapes, making visual metaphors. Art, she said in an interview, ought to be playful. She saw her art as an “imaginative playfulness”.”
– (Byatt 2004)
As an artist, Eileen Agar explored the mediums of painting, sculpture and photography. In her work, she used a variety of materials including plaster, feathers, and textiles.
Figure 1: Eileen Agar. 1934. Angel of Mercy.
In 1934 Agar created her sculpture titled ‘The Angel of Mercy’. The sculpture is one of the collaged heads that she made during her lifetime. The plaster head of her 2nd husband, Joseph Bard, has been collaged and has detachable fur. Agar drew inspiration from many sources which she has included on this head. Star symbols are coming out from the chin and above the lip, as well as a diamond on the forehead.
There is an ethereal and dreamlike feel to the sculpture. The symbols suggest a link to past civilisations and mythology. As a surrealist, this is not unexpected from Agar.
For me, the image bears a resemblance to the foundation layers that women place on their skin when contouring their faces for Instagram and other social media images.
Figure 2: Eileen Agar. 1936-37. Photograph of ‘Angel of anarchy’ (1st version)
The first version of her ‘Angel of Anarchy’ was quite realistic. Again, Agar used a sculpture head of her husband. The bust is recognisable to those who knew him. Agar covered it with doilies and other papers, as well as black Astrakhan fur and green feathers. We cannot appreciate the beauty of this version in colour as all that remains of it is the black and white photograph in figure 2.
In her autobiography ‘A look at my life’, Agar reminisces about the original version, which she had sent to a gallery in Amsterdam. It appeared in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie Robert in Amsterdam in the spring of 1938. But it was never returned to Agar. Something happened to the sculpture during the German bombings, and it has never been found or recovered. Agar decided at that point to make a second version as she had been sent 2 heads by the model makers. However, Agar was not keen on the white plaster used for the head. So she decided to cover it with materials to hand. (Agar and Lambirth 1988: 127-128)
Unlike the second and more well-known version, you were able to see the eyes of the sculpture, and this gave it a very different feel.
Figure 3: Eileen Agar. 1936-40. Angel of Anarchy
Making this final version of the head, Agar revealed a more uninhibited multicultural approach to the materials she chose. She used shell jewellery, silk scarves, African bark cloth, and feathers (osprey and ostrich) acquired from her mother. The sculpture has a diamanté nose. The head is blindfolded with the silk scarves. The materials suggest facial features, yet obscure the identity of the head at the same time.
The visual narrative of the head is both sinister and ornamental. But the contradictions in its message do not stop there. Created during the second world war, the blindfolded head appears almost defiant to me. Was Agar making a statement about the war? Was she trying not to think about the future? Could she not see a future beyond the bombing? Maybe the destruction of her first version caused her to feel less optimistic about the future than her previous work.
Despite being a male head, there is a definite feminine aesthetic which adds a softness to the narrative and challenges the observer to consider Agar’s message. According to Patricia Allmer in the exhibition catalogue for ‘Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism‘ at the Manchester City Art Gallery in 2009, Agar was addressing many issues. Was she challenging the patriarchy of surrealist art by turning a man into a woman? Was it her intent to question issues surrounding gender identity? Did it reflect the increasingly important roles that women were taking during the war effort and removing the blindness of society’s attitude towards the subservience of women? (Allmer 2009)
These questions may never be answered, but provide me with food of thought for future work. The blindfolding of a person with a silk scarf appears to be less sinister than the solid mask I have been using. My plan is to create images using scarves and also to recreate the Angle of Anarchy on myself in the studio.
Art critic and writer Sherwin states that “Agar firmly believed that women are the true Surrealists.” (Art History on the Edge: Artist Eileen Agar and The Angel of Mercy 2013). He bases this supposition on one of her quotations:-
“The importance of the unconscious in all forms of Literature and Art establishes the dominance of a feminine type of imagination over the classical and more masculine order.”
– Agar (Art History on the Edge: Artist Eileen Agar and The Angel of Mercy 2013)
Maybe this is why I am particularly drawn to her work?
AGAR, EILEEN and ANDREW LAMBIRTH. 1988. A look at my life. London: Methuen.
ALLMER, PATRICIA. 2009. Angels of anarchy. Munich: Prestel.
Art History on the Edge: Artist Eileen Agar and The Angel of Mercy. 2013. theartedge.faso.com [online]. Available at: http://theartedge.faso.com/blog/64380/art-history-on-the-edge-artist-eileen-agar-and-the-angel-of-mercy [accessed 1 February 2018].
BYATT, AS. 2004. “Angel of anarchy”. the Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/nov/27/art.asbyatt [accessed 1 February 2018].
Figure 1: Angel of Anarchy: Eileen Agar (1899–1991) – Features of Bridgeman Images. 2018. Bridgemanimages.com[online]. Available at: http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-GB/about-bridgeman/news/features/angel-of-anarchy-eileen-agar-1899-1991 [accessed 1 February 2018].
Figure 2: ‘Photograph of ‘Angel of anarchy’ (1st version)’, Eileen Agar, 1936-7 – Tate Archive | Tate. 2018. Tate [online]. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/items/tga-8927-14-4/agar-photograph-of-angel-of-anarchy-1st-version [accessed 1 February 2018].
Figure 3: ‘Angel of Anarchy’, Eileen Agar, 1936-40 | Tate. 2018. Tate [online]. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/agar-angel-of-anarchy-t03809 [accessed 1 February 2018].