Eileen Agar: An Eye for Collage, Pallant House, Chichester

Collages rarely seen before shed light on a male-dominated art movement

Over the new Pallant House show, Eileen Agar: An Eye for Collage, hangs a brooding cloud of injustice. Agar, who died in her nineties in 1991, is commonly seen as the victim of a double conspiracy, having been both a woman and a surrealist.

Female painters have always had a hard time of it, while Surrealism with a capital S went into steep decline after the 1940s. The Surrealists were a gentlemen's club to which ladies – Gala Dali, Nusch Eluard, Lee Miller – might be admitted as muses and helpmeets, but never as members. This has been the view long peddled by feminist critics such as Germaine Greer and Whitney Chadwick, and it has stuck.

For what it's worth, Surrealism was kinder to women artists than any other mid-20th-century movement I can think of – certainly than the macho wrist-flicking of Abstract Expressionism. True, most female surrealists have been sidelined by history, but then so have most surrealists. (Does Roland Penrose rank high on anyone's list of greats these days?) Compounding the supposed injustice suffered by Agar is the belief that she was never a Surrealist at all until those beastly men, Penrose and Herbert Read, told her she was; that hers was additionally a case of mistaken identity. To which revisionism one can only say hmm, and look at Agar's work.

Which is wonderful. If this show tends to historical gallantry, its choice of pictures, many from private collections and gallery store rooms, is immaculate and informed. As its title suggests, Agar is approached via her collages, these being a mainstay of surrealism. The surrealists shared Freud's taste for parapraxes – puns, jokes, uncanny juxtapositions – reasoning that they revealed the unconscious mind. Sticking something over something else offered all kinds of opportunities for happy accident, even if the coincidences were artfully contrived.

For collage to work, the collagiste needs a keen eye for irony, and Agar had this in spades. One work, Precious Stones (1936), superimposes the cut-out profile of a classical head over a page from a catalogue of antique jewellery, so that the rings illustrated – cameos, intaglios, seals – show through. Beneath this page again is another of red paper, one corner of which the artist has folded back to reveal her signature on a piece of grey paper below, which in turn overlies others of parchment and marbling. The work trompes the oeil variously and archaeologically, excavating both ancient history and its own, layer by paper layer, meditating on platonic beauty while at the same time being beautiful. Precious Stones is, in a number of senses, gemlike, a little piece of lapidary perfection.

Surprising for a show of collages, many of the works in Pallant House are oil paintings on canvas and involve no cutting and sticking at all. The rationale for their inclusion is that Agar's predilection for paper and scissors was so pronounced that it spilt over into non-collage works such as A Sea Change (1959). If you want to pick at art-historical nits, then this is a good place to start. The dancing figures of A Sea Change arguably owe as much to Matisse as they do the Surrealist preachings of André Breton, their undulating shapes bearing a strong resemblance to the papier-coupé forms with which the Frenchman had begun to experiment a few years earlier.

Matisse had joyfully described his cut-outs as "a simplification", and you feel that the same thought may have struck Agar. Apart from the broad joke of looking as if they have been stuck on to the blue field behind, the figures of A Sea Change have little to do with accident and a great deal to do with rhythm and colour – qualities that more properly belong to the realm of 1950s abstraction than they do to 1930s surrealism.

What they suggest is that Agar was struggling to escape from Surrealism's once warm embrace into less deathly arms – the vaguely Picasso-esque forms of Untitled (1974), the sort-of-Pop joshing of her Letraset drawings. As a result, a lot of her later work feels unsure, as though she is trying to sign up to a way of being rather than being herself. When she is, the results are wonderful: the wrinkled, scabby picture of her mother is one of the great British portraits of the 20th century. It, and the extraordinary Autobiography of an Embryo, show how things might have been had the young Eileen Agar not fallen among thieves.



Pallant House, Chichester. West Sussex (01243 774557) to 15 Mar 2009

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor