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
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own