Book Review: A Look at My Life by Eileen Agar

A Look at My Life Book Cover.jpg

A Look at My Life by Eileen Agar in collaboration with Andrew Lambirth. Published by Methuen Publishing Ltd. (1988). ISBN 978-0-413-18180-0

Readers looking for deep insight into Eileen Agar's artistic process may well be disappointed in this book. Agar does a pretty good job at avoiding the specifics of how she approaches art and why--at least directly. Instead, she spends a good deal talking about the places she lived and the people she met, starting with her childhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By these accounts, she had the financial means to live without worrying a whole lot about having to make a living with her art and, when her family moved to England, the social connections to keep herself apprised of current trends in the European art scene. But, I came to believe these connections with the people she knew and the places she visited were as much the fiber of her artwork as the materials she used in her paintings, sculptures and collages.

On the left, Agar (1927) Photographed by Cecil Beaton. On the right (top) Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson (1928); (bottom) Joseph Bard, Agar, and her godmother, Mita Sewell (1929).

On the left, Agar (1927) Photographed by Cecil Beaton. On the right (top) Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson (1928); (bottom) Joseph Bard, Agar, and her godmother, Mita Sewell (1929).

What I enjoyed most were the photographs of Agar's family, friends, other artists, and, of course, her artwork and studio placed throughout the book. She tells of being focused (selfishly so) on becoming an artist and working hard for what she wanted. In the last pages of the book, she admits to being a very private painter "hardly liking to talk about it", (p. 235) but occasionally, she drops a tidbit or two about her thought-processes for those patient enough to wait for them. For her, Surrealism and abstract art were "point and counterpoint," with Surrealism "drawing its inspiration from nature" and abstraction giving her "the benefit of geometry and design" to "balance and strengthen" the elements of composition. (p. 121)

Outer eye and inner eye, backward and forward, inside out and upside down, sideways, as a metaphysical aeroplane might go, no longer classical or romantic, medieval or gothic, but surreal, transcendent, a revelation of what is concealed in the hide-and-seek of life, a mixture of laughter, play and perseverance. (p. 121)
On the left, Agar in her studio. On the right (top) Angel of Anarchy (1937); (bottom) Paul Nash (1933).

On the left, Agar in her studio. On the right (top) Angel of Anarchy (1937); (bottom) Paul Nash (1933).

What drew me originally to Agar's work was her collages (which I will talk about in more detail when I review Andrew Lambirth's book Eileen Agar: An Eye For Collage, Pallant House Gallery, 2008). She used collage elements throughout her career, but became "preoccupied" with collage especially in her later years.

I find the spark is often struck from the most unlikely things. There also seems to be some kind of justice about transforming posters - which one might judge to be examples of street or popular culture, precisely the area in which Surrealism has been most obviously influential - and bringing them back, via a Surrealist juxtaposition, to collage. (p. 233-234)
On the left (top) The Modern Muse (1931); (bottom) Quadriga (1935). On the right (top) The Battle Cry (1938); (bottom) Fish Circus (1938).

On the left (top) The Modern Muse (1931); (bottom) Quadriga (1935). On the right (top) The Battle Cry (1938); (bottom) Fish Circus (1938).

I came away with an admiration for someone who, early on, set her mind to becoming an artist and never wavered. She surrounded herself with other artists, poets, and intellectuals who stimulated and challenged her imagination. It seems she never stopped learning or trying something new. With the advent of acrylics in the 1980s, she delighted in exploring the new polymer emulsion paint, pushing it to its limits. "After four hundred years of oil painting," she writes, "I felt artists should move on to something else." (p. 202)

Some articles reviewing Agar's book end with the last sentence: "I hope I die in a sparkling moment." But, I rather connect with the following:

If anything, I would like to call myself a humanist. Whatever you are going to do, you should do it here, on this planet, now. You must listen to your spiritual side and develop it. Listen to the things that whisper to you. They try to get through, but you get up and do something mundane like cutting the bread or answering the phone." (p. 228-229)

Eileen Agar (December 1, 1899 to November 7, 1991)