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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy

[ News )

As two works from our collection appear in an Eileen Agar exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, it’s curator Laura Smith celebrates Agar’s bold and high-spirited work.

Eileen Agar (1899–1991) was one of the most adventurous and prolific artists of her generation. Throughout her 70-year career she synthesised elements of two of 20th-century western culture’s most significant artistic tendencies – cubism and surrealism – in a diverse and kaleidoscopic practice which moved freely through drawing, painting, photography, collage and sculpture. Fascinated by classical art, ancient mythologies, sexual pleasure and the natural world, Agar mined these subjects for the forms and content that filled her works. For her, surrealism provided ‘the interpenetrating of reason and unreason’ and she used it to inject wit, irreverence and emotion into the more analytical realms of cubism. In doing so, Agar created a distinct and spirited style, entirely her own.

Agar was born in Buenos Aires into a wealthy and flamboyant family. Her mother was strict and Agar was a rebellious child with a burgeoning interest in art. So, at the age of six, she was sent – alone – to attend a series of rigorous academic schools in England. Unbeknown to her parents, at one of these schools, Heathfield, Agar was tutored by the painter Lucy Kemp-Welch RA, who instructed her to ‘always have something to do with art’. These artistic foundations, combined with the trauma of the First World War, led Agar to pursue a life which she saw as more fulfilling than that of becoming a debutante. As a rift grew between her and her parents, she pursued her artistic aspirations and took up a place at the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 1921.

The retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery (until 29th August 2021) is the largest exhibition of Eileen Agar’s work to date. It features over 200 paintings, collages, photographs, assemblages and archive objects, many of which have rarely been exhibited. The exhibition includes two works from Pallant House Gallery’s collection; Black Flower (1981) is one of the latest works in the exhibition, made when Agar was 82 years of age, demonstrating the enduring joy she found in making as well as her curiosity when experimenting with different media and textures. Figures in a Forest (1954) also reveals her dexterity when working with a variety of materials while also expressing her sustained interest in surrealism through its combination of organic forms with high contrast abstracted elements. The exhibition also includes a copy of The Island (1931), from Pallant House Gallery’s bookshop. The Island was a journal that Agar edited alongside her partner Joseph Bard and artist Leon Underwood, in which she explored many of the theories and ideas informing her bold and high-spirited works.



Eileen Agar, Figures in a Forest, Gouache, ink, pastel, biro and wax crayon on paper, The Peter Collymore Gift (2016) © Estate of Eileen Agar
Top: Eileen Agar, Black Flower, 1981, Ink on paper, The Petter Collymore Gift (2016) © Estate of Eileen Agar