Eileen Agar & Surrealist Games (by jane dávila)

Eileen Agar (1904-1991)

In trying to find a suitable subject for today’s post I came across an interesting female Surrealist. Born in Argentina but living most of her life in England, Eileen Agar was a painter and a sculptor. The extensive use of found objects in her work greatly appeals to me.
Agar-Collective Unconsciousness
Collective Unconscious, Eileen Agar

In her autobiography A Look at My Life (1988), Eileen Agar said that as an artist ‘one must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes and new possibilities of discovery’. The lyricism and vibrant colouring of Collective Unconscious is representative of her late work. The composition combines Surrealist elements with its abstracted “cut-out” forms and painterly surface.”

Inapoi, Eileen Agar

A biography on the Royal Academy of Arts, London, website states:

Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Agar came to London aged six. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art (1921-1924) before travelling to Paris and Spain with her first husband, Robin Bartlett. In 1926 Agar began a relationship with the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard, who she married in 1940. In 1929 she moved to Paris set up a studio and studied under Franti’ek Foltýn (1891-1976) who she said encouraged her to free herself ‘from the cul-de-sac of representational painting, by learning the principles of abstract painting, and experimenting with colour as well as form.’

Agar was the only British artist to have work included in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936. Although she is often categorised as a Surrealist, Agar was equally interested in abstraction and did not strictly adhere to the tenets of any particular art movement. Agar was elected a Senior Member of the Royal Academy in 1988. “

From 1936 she experimented with automatic techniques and new materials, taking photographs and making collages and objects, for example The Angel of Anarchy (fabric over plaster and mixed media, 1936–40; London, Tate).

Angel of Anarchy, Eileen Agar

We talked about Automatic Writing a while back and the principles as applied to Surrealist art are very interesting. The definition from Wikipedia:

Surrealism in art, poetry, and literature utilizes numerous unique techniques and games to provide inspiration. Many of these are said to free imagination by producing a creative process free of conscious control. The importance of the unconscious as a source of inspiration is central to the nature of surrealism.

The Surrealist movement has been a fractious one since its inception. The value and role of the various techniques has been one of many subjects of disagreement. Some Surrealists consider automatism and Surrealist games to be sources of inspiration only, while others consider them as starting points for finished works. Others consider the items created through automatism to be finished works themselves, needing no further refinement.”

Fish Circus, Eileen Agar

This would seem to lend validity to the practice within the art quilt world of “challenges”. These would follow in well-trodden, artistic footsteps as prescribed by the Surrealists (exquisite corpse, anyone?). And like the Surrealists, we could argue over whether these works are the starting points for future work or indeed, the finished works. I know that I participate in challenges (with “strangers” and with friends) if something about one hooks my attention. I think that there is value in working within a framework of “rules” that you haven’t set up and that you have limited control over, as a jumping-off point and as inspiration. What do you think? Does the historic precedent of Surrealist art games legitimize the propensity of art quilters to participate in their/our own art games? Do you find these types of games valuable in your own work? Why and why not?

By the way, is not “the cul-de-sac of representational painting” a fantastic, evocative expression, whether you agree with it or not?


6 Responses to “Eileen Agar & Surrealist Games (by jane dávila)”

  1. 1 iskender savasir January 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful and informative comments. There is a copy of the picture Angel of Mercy at Artnet:


  2. 2 Dena Crain August 13, 2007 at 6:50 am


    Would it be possible for you to put a widget onto the Ragged Cloth Cafe that would allow the posts and comments to be searched? WP does have one, and it’s not difficult to install. I ask because in my work I do a bit of ‘automatic’ quilting; stitching by hand or machine without preconceived design and only the barest awareness of what I’m doing. Inevitably, some image results, and I then paint the image with dyes or paint. You can find examples of this work on my site in the gallery titled “Spirit Works.”

    I studied at QSDS with Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, who told me somewhere along the way that I ought to look more closely at surrealism. I must admit it has always had an appeal for me, but I rather thought it had gone the way of many other schools of painting, into the pages of history. Thanks very much for these fresh insights into the significance of the style. Now I can say not only that I am an artist; I am a SURREALIST artist!!! Made my day!!!

  3. 3 June August 10, 2007 at 8:12 am

    Oh and the “Ceremonial Hat” is delicious. Does it need the title for it to be “surreal” — or would we now just accept it as a piece of art, no label attached, if we didn’t know it was Agar?

  4. 4 June August 10, 2007 at 8:11 am


    Thanks for an evocative post. “Fish Circus” bemuses me, particularly as I just read a poem about what the ocean floor would look like if it dried up, what with bottle caps and plastic nets encrusted with sea weed. A circus indeed, with some dark edges.

    I am also reading at a couple of books by David Lewis-Williams on the Neolithic mind — that is, what it was that allowed neolithic peoples to make a leap to 2-d (and some 3-d) drawings and carvings. His theory is that there is a hard-wired, specifically located, brain state of “altered consciousness” and it’s out of that consciousness, as well as out of an ability to commit such states to memory when coming out of them, that are represented in the cave drawings. Think shamans, going into trances, or young people on vision quests, etc.

    Making a leap here — it seems to me that the best surrealist works seem to draw on imagery that might have come out of _my_ altered consciousness states (these states are present in sleep patterns as well as induced by alcohol, illness, exhaustion, etc) That is, it’s hard to do really fine art merely by assigning limitations and rules. That may be a place to begin, but something else has to enter into the calculation.

    The phrase “cul-de-sac of representation” is indeed an elegant one, but of course it’s totally false, unless the artist find herself on that street. (Disclaimer — I’m doing representational work, like you and Eileen). Certainly by 1860, artists had worked themselves into one of those cul-de-sacs, with representational historical paintings. And I would say (at the risk of my life perhaps) that both traditional quilts and the current over-use of spangly, dangly, new techniques and materials in quilt art/art quilts also often lead to dead ends. In point of fact, I would say that it’s possible that traditional quilts are at the end point, while the pursuit of the latest quilty material could easily lead there. As is the case with much of representational painting, for that matter. Let’s see — the cul-de-sac of angelina, which accompanies the cul-de-sac of representational painting?

  5. 5 Jane Davila August 9, 2007 at 10:23 am

    Another of her found object sculptures is “Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabase”

    I have a book that features a photo of a different angel piece, Angel of Mercy, but I haven’t been able to locate a picture of it online. I wish more of her work was available online, it’s very intriguing.

    I agree that the “cul-de-sac” phrase is a generalization, but I do like the imagery of it. (I’m mainly a representational artist myself.) How do we know if the artistic path we’re on is a “thoroughfare” or a “cul-de-sac”? Is one necessarily better than another? Would we only know by looking back?

  6. 6 eileen doughty August 9, 2007 at 7:59 am

    Thanks for your post, Jane. “Inapoi” seems almost like a series on one canvas, or variations on a theme. “Angel of Anarchy” is very fun and something I’d love to see in person.

    You say ‘there is value in working within a framework of “rules” that you haven’t set up and that you have limited control over, as a jumping-off point and as inspiration.’ That is how I think of doing commissions – which I find an enjoyable challenge but I think I am in the minority there.

    And the phrase “the cul-de-sac of representational painting” is something I find to be a gross generalization. I may not agree with it, but it sure is pithy. But define “representational” – if the goal is to have the painting look like a photographic copy, I would tend to agree. However, artists can still place interpretations and symbols in representational art.

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