Interview with Eileen Agar

Eileen Agar Part II

G.H. In the last interview we got up to the war years. After the war had ended you said it took you a long time to get started. How do you feel about that?

E.A. You see the canteen work went on a bit after the war and then again it was so awful that I felt dreadful that there should be so many people killed and bombed and everything and I couldn’t get back to work. I thought well what’s the use a bomb will come and throw everything into chaos again and I was very dispirited.

G.H. You continued to work?

E.A. Yes I have. Now I have more or less stopped working I feel I’ve done enough I’ve been doing these small collages that I told you about. I think I’ve got enough collages.

G.H. Yes but collage has been an important part of your work all along hasn’t it?

E.A. Yes. I very early on liked doing collage and making objects and that sort of thing, doing anything I could. It very often frees you rather than than sticking to one thing. If you stick to one, just painting you loose ideas. But if you play about with other things they bring you also into conflict with other ideas.

P.B. Do you think that some of the little mixed media pieces that you’ve put together, the assemblages, obviously influenced by nature are also influenced by erotica?

E.A. Erotica? Well I hadn’t really thought about erotica, in that sense. If it’s erotic to other people well and good I’ve never thought of it myself.

P.B. Some of the other painters Palethorpe and so on, they had an element of erotica.

E.A. That’s right, very erotic elements I quite agree. I never went for that sort of thing. If it happened all well and good you see, but I never thought of it in that way.

G.H. Even though you were interested in unconscious ideas you weren’t really interested in “automatism”.

E.A. No I wasn’t interested, I didn’t believe it was possible. You see after a minute or two you start thinking what shall I put next and that stops it being automatic you see. Andre Breton eventually agreed with me that there is no such thing as automatic writing but he was one of the first to try and push this idea that it was something in surrealist writing.

P.B. I want to talk about your work as you got older. You’ve seen a lot of friends and people die and disappear from the art world and there was a period of your life when you weren’t really showing a great deal. During the late Fifties and Sixties.

E.A. I had a show in the Sixties you see. I haven’t really thought a bit like that. I was working. If somebody rang up and said we’d like to give you a show–well and good but I never hunted for one.

P.B. Do you think that, compared to some of your peers that your work has been neglected?

E.A. No, I never thought so but other people have said as much. Edward Lucie-Smith finds: “neglected modernist being reassessed”. That’s the sort of thing, that The Independent came out with a short time ago.

P.B. Do you think that way of thinking, concentrating on your own practice, was something that many women contemporary to you seemed to spend time on, rather than seeking representation for their work in the Art World?

E.A. Yes. I think it’s true. Women were so keen to make a name for themselves. People would say: “Oh they’ll never be as good as any man!”. They wanted to do that, and if you’re hunting about making publicity you can’t do both. That’s why all the women I know who are good painters, it just happened to them that people noticed their work eventually. They said that we’d like to give you a show or something.

G.H. It is only recently that galleries have started to buy your work and collect it for major collections. I was thinking about the Tate. What do you think about that?

E.A. Well I don’t think it’s only recently I’ve sold very well. The New Arts Centre for instance when I showed in the Sixties I just met Madelaine Poncenby the other day she came to my book launch and everybody said “Oh perhaps you don’t see Madeleine Poncenby now?” I said yes, of course I see her and she doesn’t mind that I showed somewhere else. You see she’s very pleased that I’m getting on. She wrote and told me “I see you’ve finding the recognition that you’ve deserved for years in the papers”. She had read a lot about me lately you see.

P.B. Many books on Surrealism have excluded the contribution which other people now say was quite major; that was made by women.

E.A. Yes, yes but a lot of them didn’t even know about it. Yes you see Andre Breton didn’t know that his wife was a very good painter until somebody else told him. He asked to see the paintings and she pulled them out of a cupboard, but it was just decency on her part she didn’t want to interfere with his being known as a Pope of Surrealism. That happened frequently. Then they discovered that women were not only muses. Here’s this little picture that my neice pulled out of Vogue (or somewhere). This is Picasso and holding a frame in front of the hub of his wheel of his motor car showing–well it say’s by unknown woman and that unknown woman is me.

P.B. How do you see the present in terms of women artists–do you see many differences?

E.A. Well, I never think in that way. I never think of them as separate from men artists. I think that either people are artists or they are not artists. I don’t make those distinctions and I don’t think you should either. I think that the whole thing is that human beings are either artists or not.

P.B. Can you understand why these distinctions are being looked now?

E.A. It’s pragmatic. The masculine intellect likes to order everything into little compartments. They say; “oh these people are women and they paint and these people are men and they write” or whatever. Men are more pragmatic than women; women are intuitive. They know when a thing is right or wrong. They don’t have to make a reason for it. Men always have to make a reason: “we did it because of this or that”. Thats what I found is the distinction and I don’t particularly like it.

P.B. By going back to some of the things which we were talking about informally when we first met. One of the things which I think I certainly found as a young person going to art college was that there was a distinction that was made which really affected your education, to a degree where you might find that the male students had over 50% more, tuition, more materials, had generally more help and certainly more push.

E.A. I don’t agree. I think when I was at the Slade I got just as much tuition. If you were bright you got just as much tuition as a man would. Tonks used to come and stand over me and watch me draw. He wouldn’t dream of giving more to men than to women. I’ve never found that.

G.H. I think that is very similar to what you were saying in the book about exhibitions being organised at that time with The Surrealists As you did it as a group women were just as well recognised. It is only when galleries and other people started to open their own spaces that men were exhibited consistently. Men, had the money and were able to do that.

E.A. Yes that’s quite true it was men who very often had the money to start galleries, so naturally they were friends with artists–male artists that’s true.

P.B. Do you think that if you had been a man that the production of your work, through your life time would have been seen at the same level as other male peers?

E.A. I don’t think so it’s very difficult to imagine myself. Somebody asked me would I have liked to have been a man because I was showing so much at the time you see. They thought that it was marvellous that a woman should make such a success. I said no I wouldn’t like to be a man at all. I’m perfectly happy as a woman but I realise sometimes men have galleries and they like to put in their own people but that doesn’t worry me. My husband always used to say don’t you worry about fame. He said it will all come to you in time and it has you see. It’s just a question of going on working and doing good work. That’s the important thing. Not how many shows you have or how much you sell.

My niece who went with me to a small gallery in Westborne Grove said: “Oh marvellous, you’re making a lot of money”. I said: “I’m not making any money, these don’t belong to me. They belong to people who’ve bought them and then sold them after two or three or fifteen years”. When I asked how did he find them–there were things I hadn’t seen for fifteen or twenty years–he said: “Oh, we have our ways of finding them”. It’s extraordinary.

G.H. When you were working in the Thirties and Forties did you find that you were able to sell your work so that you could continue painting?

E.A. Oh yes, I think it was important. A painter always likes to show work, so it was naturally important that I show. I always accepted when I was asked to show. I never, like some women, said: “Oh no, I’m not going to show unless all of us are women, or something like that.”

P.B. Did women make those comments?

E.A. Yes.

P.B. Was that women who were in The Surrealist Group at the time?

E.A. Yes they were Surrealist–I think Dorothea Tanning wasn’t particularly interested in showing and Leonora Carrington also; she was in America of course and she wouldn’t come over for this special showing.

G.H. Do you feel that you have been able to make a living from your paintings? And continue in that way?

E.A. Oh yes, yes I pay my rent and everything from the money that I have made. I have very little otherwise you see. Not enough to live on certainly.

G.H. Because I think today that it is sometimes difficult for women artists.

E.A. Yes when I was young I couldn’t do it. My husband helped me you see. But now that I’ve got older and had shows and got recognised it makes a great difference.

G.H. Yes.

P.B. How long have you been a member of The Royal Academy?

E.A. Hardly a year. The president rang me up and said that they were going to make me a member. I’ve never shown at The Royal Academy before. Evidently it’s very much changed now. They’ve decided they had to keep up with the times and there are modern, Abstract and Surrealist paintings there.

The interview ended at this point as Eileen Agar was attending The Members Club Dinner at The Royal Academy, that evening. Full text of both interviews and tapes are available-at the Women Artists Slide Library. The WASL History Section is going through exciting new developments. Its aim is to uncover the lives and work of women artists of the past, known in their day, but neglected since. Now that I have taken over the running of the History Section our main aim is to expand this important aspect of WASL.

Agar, Eileen; Figures in a Garden; Tate;

The History Section has been likened to an archaeological dig; the more one uncovers the more excavation there is to do. In order to build up more information about works by women artists on show in museums and galleries, we are writing for lists of works in collections.

We are still involved in photographing works by women artists in The Imperial War Museum, presently delayed by its rebuilding. Our project, carried out by workers and volunteers, is well on its way and the results are being filed in the archive.

John Sunderland, Librarian at The Witt Library, Courtauld Institute, London University, another of our invaluable supporters in the academic world, has allowed WASL to have copies of duplicate black and white photographs of works by women artists. This is doubly exciting as it increases the black and white photography section as well as the history section. Already some interesting new material has come to light.

This month sees the annual Association of Art Historians Conference, to be held in London. WASL will be mounting an exhibition, Vison and Practice, at The Crypt in Bloomsbury. As usual WASL will be present at the AAH Book Fair and we look forward to meeting our members and, of course, potential new members. If you are interested in any area of volunteering, please write to me at WASL; all help and donations are most welcome. Did you write a thesis on women artists, and is it in the archive? Please send us a copy.

Barrie, Pauline^Houghton, Gill