Curator’s Choice – The Archer, 1966, by Eileen Agar

Posted: 23rd December 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – The Archer, 1966, by Eileen Agar

Eileen Agar was an artist you could call a rebel, an innovator and a free spirit. Her painting, The Archer, is in the Ferens Collection.

Agar was a painter and photographer associated with the Surrealist movement. Surrealism was a twentieth-century literary, philosophical and artistic movement. Its members explored the working of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary.

Agar started her life growing up in Buenos Aires, the daughter of an American and a Scot. In 1911, Agar moved to London with her family. In her memoir, Agar described her childhood as being “full of balloons, hoops and St Bernard dogs”.

In 1914, with the onset of World War One, Agar was sent to boarding school. During her studies she recounted that she found herself “where art was a valued part of daily life”. This led to her later studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London where she was accompanied by other well-known artists, including her first husband Robin Bartlett.

However, it was not to last. In 1926, Agar met the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard. Rebelling against her privileged upbringing, she left her husband and ran away to Paris. It was in Paris where she met the Surrealists André Breton and Paul Éluard. It was only two years later in 1933, that Agar was given her first solo show at London’s Bloomsbury Gallery.

In the 1930s Agar was a leading British exponent of Surrealism, although she remained distinct from the political and theoretical aspects of the movement. Her work was selected by Roland Penrose and Herbert Reed where she was the only professional British female artist who exhibited at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London.
Throughout her career Agar used mixed media with collages, paintings, objects and photographs. I was drawn to Agar’s acrylic painting The Archer from the Ferens Collection. This modest study was made later in her career and retains a Surrealist mood in terms of its imaginative combination of semi-abstract imagery with an other-worldly palette. The canvas shows an abstract image on the theme of an archer. It has a large black silhouette surrounding an amorphous white figure. The arrangement of the limbs suggests the figure drawing a bow from a standing position.

Created in 1967, this was a period where Agar was experimenting with acrylics and enjoyed trying out new pigments and colour combinations. The Archer, shows just that of a multi-coloured painting. With a marine blue background, the striking white figure is filled with textured green, yellow, orange and light blue flowers.
Agar described surrealism as the ‘magical intertwining of reason and imagination’. This is why I was drawn to her painting. The Archer breaks free from the traditional forms, lines and depiction of life. It draws you in, and your eyes follow the winding shapes around the canvas. Perhaps now, in a time where art and creativity is important for our wellbeing, an artwork like this is stimulating for the mind.

Written by Stephanie Edwards, Exhibitions Assistant at Ferens Art Gallery.

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