Eileen Agar RA, Collective Unconscious, acrylic on canvas, 1977-78 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Object of the Month - March 2017


Eileen Agar RA (1899-1991), Collective Unconscious, 1977-78

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. Grid-like geometry is disrupted with diagonal lines and organic forms.

Agar was associated with the Surrealists having befriended André Breton and Paul Éluard when she lived in Paris from 1928. Although this painting refers to the unconscious in its title, Agar did not use the automatic techniques intrinsic to Surrealist working methods. She met the British Surrealist artist Paul Nash in the mid-1930s who introduced her to the use of 'found objects', encouraging her preferred working method of collage. She often incorporated found objects within her paintings, drawings and sculptural pieces physically and as represented motifs. Her Diploma Work is composed of forms derived from molluscs, shells, sea-anemones, seaweed and fossils. A wide range of colours supplement this imagery: earthy tones dominate the lower half of the painting and rich blues saturate the top suggesting a seabed. Such natural imagery was of profound interest to Agar; while living in Paris in the late 1920s, she regularly visited the Jardin des Plantes where she became fascinated by:

'the bones of the proto-bird, the Archaeopteryx, which I felt should be painted life-size. I was enthralled by fossils, their muted colour and embedded beauty. They reach us as signals in time, isolated objects which take on importance of a problem resolved at some moment far back beyond the mists of human memory.'

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 female British artist to have work included in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 after her work was suggested by Paul Nash. She said 'one day I was an artist exploring highly personal combinations of form and content, and the next I was calmly informed I was a Surrealist'. 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.

Collective Unconscious will be on display at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings as part of In Focus: Eileen Agar - Bride of the Sea from 15 March to 4 June 2017.

Agar's work can also be seen in Paul Nash at Tate Britain, London until 5 March 2017.