Leeds Art Gallery, 29th January, 2022 to 7th May, 2022

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The role of women in the Surrealist movement has often been underplayed, at least until relatively recently. And thereís no getting past the fact that there was a great deal of misogyny among the  Surrealists. Women were wives, mistresses, sex objects, but rarely given credit as creators of Surrealist art. And yet major exhibitions, such as Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism at Manchester Art Gallery in late-2009 and early-2010, and Women Artists and Surrealism at the Picasso Museum, MŠlaga, in 2017, have demonstrated how much imaginative work was produced by women functioning within a framework of Surrealism.

Eileen Agar was represented in the exhibitions Iíve referred to, and the earlier neglect of her work might be explained not only by the fact of her female status, but also perhaps because she was usually identified as a British Surrealist. And for a long time British Surrealism was looked on by critics as mostly being a weak imitation of the real thing that came from the Continent. The British artists were said to be too whimsical and less convincing and unlikely to portray a deeper, darker and more disturbing aspect of Surrealism. An exhibition, British Surrealism in Context: A Collectorís Eye, at the Abbott Hall Gallery, Kendal, in 2014 certainly demonstrated that whimsy could play a part in some British Surrealist paintings, but it wasnít the whole story.

Eileen Agar was born in Buenos Aires in 1899 to a Scottish businessman father and an American mother. From an early age she was sent to private schools in England, and was encouraged by sympathetic teachers to develop an interest in art. Later, she studied for a time at the Slade, though she expressed dissatisfaction at the teaching and general atmosphere there. By the early-1920s she had experienced a brief, unsuccessful marriage, toured in France and Spain, and met the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard with whom she had a fifty-year relationship. This didnít prevent her from having an intense affair with Paul Nash, and another with the French poet, Paul …luard. Iím compressing details of Agarís life, and she studied Cubism in Paris and mixed in circles which included Picasso, Ezra Pound, Brancusi, Andrť Breton, and other talented poets and painters.

She also encountered people in what might be called the British avant-garde when Herbert Read and Roland Penrose visited her studio and selected some of her work for the nowĖfamous New Burlington Gallery, International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.  Agar used to say that she hadnít known she was a Surrealist until Read and Penrose told her she was. And it seems she didnít like the label. Artists and writers often do deny a group identification, preferring to have their work judged on its own merits rather than those of a supposed movement. Itís usually critics and art historians who want to place people in neat and tidy categories.  But things are much more complicated than that and individuals donít observe boundaries and take what they want from various sources.

Was she a Surrealist? Walking around the Leeds exhibition itís easy to see that elements of what is usually referred to as Surrealism can be located in the paintings, photographs, and other items on display. But she was interested in ďfound objectsĒ and took pictures of rock formations shaped by accidents of nature, and trees broken and gnarled by the effects of extreme weather conditions. It was the physical appearance of these objects that seemed to intrigue her rather than any deep meaning that may have been attached to them.

Her paintings incorporated elements of Cubism and Surrealism, without falling into any kind of slavish imitation or pattern of prescribed Cubist or Surrealist intentions. And, yes, the whimsical is there and why not? Itís noted that Agar had a liking for Lewis Carroll, and I recall the American poet Robert Bly (I think It was)  expressing his objection to a British assertion that we didnít really need Surrealism because we have, among other things such as Edward Lear and a long tradition of Gothic novels and ghost stories, the Lewis Carrol books.  There may be a case for the whimsical and the idea that the gloomy is not necessarily profound, nor the cheerful shallow.

Itís a pleasure to see an exhibition that features a wide range of work produced across a lifetime (she died in 1991) of activity. And to have it backed up by a selection of documents Ė among them exhibition catalogues and old magazines such as the four issues of Island, a publication part-edited by Joseph Bard and to which Agar contributed. A true little magazine it lasted only a short time, but played its part in the artistic ferment of the period. The role of magazines like it should never be under-estimated because they seem slim and fragile and few people saw them at the moment of their appearance. The audience they reached was an informed and important one.

Back to the question Ė was Aileen Agar a Surrealist? Sheís in the books and the exhibitions, and thatís useful in terms of drawing attention to what she did. But it doesnít really matter. The work, with its vibrant use of colour and subtle suggestions of humour, has its own values and is worth looking at on those grounds.