Angel of Anarchy: Eileen Agar at Whitechapel Gallery
Eileen Agar (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1899 – London, United Kingdom, 1991) was one of the key figures of surrealism, a movement where she was reluctantly inserted. The Whitechapel Gallery brings us Angel of Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her work and life, which brings together examples of her painting, sculpture, photography, collage and archival documentation, such as letters and photographs. The exhibition sheds new light on the role of an artist who, to say the least, does not appear on the first results when we type «surrealism» on search engines.
Wandering through the gallery, we confirm that Eileen Agar’s 70-year career summarizes the different isms of early 20th-century western art history. A choreography of artistic movements, her work includes nuances of modernism, visible in The Autobiography of an Embryo (1933-4), surrealism, in the painting Quadriga (1935), which was part of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and cubism, namely in Movement in Space (1931). Her work is also informed by poetry, literature, mythology and a strong, albeit premature, feminism.
Eileen Agar has taken on a huge role in undoing the prejudice of the muse-woman who poses for the genius-man. In this sense, she developed the «womb magic» theory, which dictated the unconscious sovereignty of the feminine over the masculine in art and literature. In The Modern Muse (1934), «creativity» is her genderless muse and Muse of Construction (1939) was painted from a photograph she took of Picasso reclining on the Mougins beach. The painting itself is a tribute to Cubism of Picasso – twisted, geometrized and flat – however, what stays in our memory, is the critique of the role of women through the subversion of gender stereotypes. In Ladybird (1936), Eileen Agar shows us an empowering nude photograph of herself, over which she draws with white gouache, in a sensual and un-constrained movement, once again underlining and criticizing the double-standard of gender in which sexuality is concerned.
In times of war, the artist was a militant of the resistance through fashion. In Video of Agar wearing Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouilabasse (1948), we see the surrealist artist performing by walking the streets wearing a wide-brimmed cork hat, ornamented with whelks, lobsters, starfish, and other lost objects. Agar had already produced another hat, in 1936, which she called Glove Hat. Wearing two fur gloves on top of your head with painted nails glued to the fingers, particularly at that time, reveals a prodigious sense of humour. This hat, unfortunately, was not part of the exhibition. For us today, it remains an example of one of the many forms of resistance that have not yet been exhausted.
Here, Now, the Whitechapel Gallery’s official podcast, available on Spotify, dedicated an episode to this exhibition, titled Episode 7: Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy, where curator Laura Smith and assistant curator Grace Storey invite artist Lucy Stein, poet Daisy Lafarge and designer Beca Lipscombe for a conversation about Agar’s work and its relevance to contemporary art. Until July 29, a series of free online events titled Water/Fluidity will also be available as part of the program Ways of Knowing: Imagining Other Futures, focusing on Eileen Agar’s relationship with the element of water.