'Angel of Anarchy', Eileen Agar, Whitechapel Gallery
I must confess I had never heard of Eileen Agar until this retrospective of her work at the Whitechapel Gallery caught my eye. I think it was the title that did it: ‘Angel of Anarchy’?, how intriguing.
There are no Harley Davidsons (I am a big ‘Sons of Anarchy’ fan,,,) or political coup d'état involved in the making of these works, but Agar’s free spirit and experimental approach give life to this retrospective charting her prolific career from the 1920s to the 1990s.
The Surrealist movement celebrated male artists as its figureheads while their female peers, although equally talented, often toiled in obscurity and were quickly forgotten. A recent Tate Modern exhibition gave us a wonderful insight into Dorothea Tanning’s work and this comprehensive show now allows us an in depth exploration of Agar’s practice.
Most artists go through different stages of development and experimentation. Agar's is no exception. Her journey takes us from conservative-looking portraits to experimenting with collages, objects and abstract paintings. Her Surrealism was inspired by natural forms and her willingness to explore and experiment with different techniques make her work fiercely individual. Maybe what is unusual with Agar is that she never settled for one particular style or medium, usually a must for commercial success and recognition, and continued to explore until the end. As an artist I really enjoyed being able to see the sketches and the photographs that became inspirations for some of her works.
I purposely did not want to find out too much about her background, her family, who she was married to, whose male artist’s ‘muse’ she might or might not have been. I only wanted to see this unknown (to me) artist purely through the work in front of me. And what I saw was enough to sustain my interest: beautiful chaos dressed up in lace, seashells and feathers.
Agar will never be a household name because her practice is so hard to pin down and might not have ever been fully realised. But what is success for an artist? international recognition? money? to be remembered? critical acclaim? being an inspiration to others? For Agar, it might have been simply the ability to continue to make art and develop her ideas throughout her life, a mistress of her own work and fate. And who are we to argue. After all isn't anarchy all about ignoring the rules & following your own path.
Eileen Agar, 'Angel of Anarchy', Whitechapel Gallery, London until 29 August 2021.