The Independent Archive: Womb magic from an artist who teases

28 September 1988 Diana Hinds meets Eileen Agar, one of the last surviving painters of the English Surrealist circle
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THE 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, at the New Burlington Galleries, caused a considerable stir. The critics were deeply divided, the public thought it immoral, and Salvador Dali, flouting instructions that the artists should not draw attention to themselves, arrived in a diving suit (he nearly suffocated inside the helmet), with a pair of Russian wolfhounds, a billiard cue and a jewelled dagger on his belt. Eileen Agar also made her name at the exhibition. Now 88, she is one of the last surviving painters of the English Surrealist circle, and her work still bears their stamp.

Tiny and slightly stooping, she has a birdlike grace, inscrutable wide- set eyes, and a roguish playfulness about the mouth. When I met her at her Kensington flat, she told me, with particular relish, the story of how she became a Surrealsist (she accents the first syllable) overnight.

"It was early in the spring of 1936, and the painter Roland Penrose and the critic Herbert Read were looking around for work for the exhibition. "I had my studio at that time decorated in quite a curious way, with all sorts of strange objects and masks, and they looked around and said, `Oh, but you're a Surrealist.' `Am I?' I said - and they took away two or three paintings and some objects." She was delighted: "I was completely unknown, I'd hardly exhibited before - so of course I was grateful, it meant I could show my work."

After her rather dour art training at the Slade, it was, she says, the imaginative freedom of the Surrealists that appealed to her, and she continued to exhibit with them for many years. But she maintained, nevertheless, an independent view on matters of Surrealist orthodoxy: "automatism", for example - the technique of automatic painting or writing, dictated from the unconscious - she simply did not believe in.

"The Surrealists, thank goodness, believed in a sense of humour - jokes, everything that was lively, a bit different." She recalls, with a croaky laugh, one occasion when Surrealists gathered at a pre-war haunt, the Barcelona Restaurant in Beak Street: "George Melly was asked to do something strange: he waited until we were all silent, picked up a whole lot of knives and forks and threw them in the air. They all came clattering down, and the people downstairs thought `My God, what's happened?', until we explained it was just a Surrealist joke." Much of her work bears a similarly teasing stamp, for instance her "ceremonial hat for eating bouillabaisse", which she made in 1937 out of an upside-down cork basket with shellfish attached.

At the heart of it, however, lies a commitment to nature, and to what the Surrealists called the "found object", something which she shared particularly with the painter Paul Nash. She first met Nash in 1935, while on holiday with her husband Joseph Bard (a Hungarian writer and collector of gems; he died in 1975) in Swanage. "Paul used to bring me curious stones that he had picked up on the beach," she writes in her autobiography, A Look At My Life, "and as he said, he felt rather like a penguin, laying them metaphorically at my feet."

Her paintings explore the diversity of the animate and inanimate worlds, piecing them together in shards of vivid colour (her love of colour, she says, derives from her early childhood in Argentina). One of her most outstanding works, The Autobiography of an Embryo (1933), now hanging in the Tate, is a large, brilliant mosaic of disparate images, out of which grew her notion of "womb magic" - that the foetus in the womb relives each stage of evolution, from a tiny aquatic creature to a human, and represents a miraculous, imaginative force.

Eileen Agar admits that she was one of the very few women among the Surrealists to be taken seriously as a painter; Andre Breton's wife, for instance, was a talented artist, but Breton didn't even know about it until other people told him. "They always thought of women as Muses," she comments drily; " I was more interested in being a painter than being good-looking."

From the Living page of `The Independent', Wednesday 28 September 1988