Untitled, c.1940, Eileen Agar, Gouache on board
Eileen Agar was born in 1899 in Argentina to an American mother and a Scottish father. Agar moved with her family to London when she was around twelve years old, having travelled to England every two years prior to the move. Though Agar moved frequently throughout her life, England always acted as her home base to which she felt attached. In 1914 during the onset of World War I Agar was sent away from her London home to live in Kent. During this time, she was exposed to art in a place where “art was a valued part of daily life” and became familiar with Paul Nash’s early works.
Agar is mainly associated with the British Surrealist movement, and is famous for her use of collaging. In particular, Agar was known for assemblage pieces created from objects she found on the beach while beachcombing; she spent her summers on the British coast, often taking up residence with other artists in the South. Agar became one of the only women to exhibit along with the Surrealists in England and abroad during the 1930s. The most notable exhibition Agar participated in was the ground-breaking ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London in 1936.
The outbreak of the Second World War unfortunately put a halt to Agar’s artistic activity; by day she was working in a canteen and by night she served as a fire watcher, leaving little room for artistic expression. Furthermore, Agar felt uninspired and understandably disheartened by the state of the world at the time, exclaiming in her words “How does one communicate with any subtlety when the world is deafened by explosions?” One of the limited works Agar created during this time was the Untitled (c.1940) gouache painting she created at the start of the war. The painting is an incredibly personal reaction to the loss, violence and destruction which occurred during the Battle of Britain. It acts as an expression of her horror at the devastation and disturbance to her much beloved homeland. The wavy shapes Agar uses to frame the painting, reminiscent of cartoon noise bubbles, embody the deafening noise she was experiencing as a result of the ensuing destruction. More obviously, the shapes represent the waves on the British coastline, the scene on which the Battle of Britain took place. On the bottom of the painting we see a sea of red, a more graphic allusion to the bloodshed and loss resulting from the conflict.
Agar used the technique of collaging throughout her work; in this painting, Agar utilised it to mirror the chaos of the air assaults. The chaotic composition on the canvas means a closer look is necessary to read the surreal painting. The eerie symbol of the skeleton of the mammoth is the most eye-catching fragment of the painting. This extinct creature may seem far-fetched from the events at the time; however, Agar could be alluding to her own internal fear she was facing at the time. Perhaps Agar was portraying her fear and anticipation that this relentless violence will one day lead to the extinction of her beloved coastal summers; Agar’s beachcombing excursions began to feel like a distant, tainted memory. Scattered around the painting, we see tangled masts and remains of ships and boats destroyed by the bombings on the coastline interweaved with the debris from the planes responsible for the destruction. There is a sense of irony to this juxtaposition– the onlooker may begin to imagine the scene at hand prior to the destruction; the peaceful boats floating along the coast and the planes, impaling the skies, both laying side-by-side, motionless on the beach.