As you may be aware, my theme for the Blogging A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists, who have touched me personally in some way.
Today’s artist is British surrealist, Eileen Agar, who I came across in rather a unique way. You see, while I was compiling my list, I came across an art personality quiz on the Tate Gallery’s web site… http://www.tate.org.uk/art/find-your-art-inspiration. This is part of Women’s History Month, and it allows you to see which woman artist is your perfect match.
Since I love such quizzes, I sharpened my brain and tried to answer the questions as honestly as I could. Confession time. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I find it all too easy to cheat, and present a more idealized version of myself.
As it turned out, I was told that Eileen Agar was my perfect match. Indeed, this is what the quiz told me:
Love to play: Eileen Agar
“You are curious and perceptive, with a playful sense of humour. You love nature and collecting beautiful objects. Highly imaginative, you look at the world from a sideways perspective. You’re open to new experiences and appreciate life’s absurdities – much like Eileen Agar.
Agar (1904–1991) was one of the few women artists to become associated with the Surrealist movement. In fact, she was the only British woman artist to show work at the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. A lot of her work is assembled using different found materials and objects, such as feathers, beads and shells. She often took the natural world as her cue, responding playfully to the landscape around her (see her photograph of ‘Bum and Thumb Rock‘).”
Well, this was a bit of a surprise for this meek, mild-mannered reporter…a Clark Kent in a woman’s body.
Let’s start off just by talking about her hats. These were artworks in themselves. Her best known is the Ceremonial hat for eating Bouillabaisse (a rich, spicy stew or soup made with various kinds of fish, originally from Provence). This was no ordinary hat. It “consisted of a cork basket picked up in St Tropez and painted blue, which I covered with fishnet, a lobster’s tail, starfish and other marine objects’ 1 Well, she was friends with Salvidor Dali who had a lobster on his telephone, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised.
Yet, can I see myself stepping out the front door and even walking down the street wearing such a hat? Not on your life. That said, I have been known to stand out in my own peculiar ways. Indeed, I’ve photographed tea cups in the waves and on the beach. I’ve also photographed a huge Eeyore on the beach looking wistfully out to sea. I also bought myself a pair of pink, satin ballet slippers and attended adult ballet classes, which meant crossing over some pretty high boundaries as a middle-aged woman living with disability and chronic health. So, I have broken a few conventions in my life, and as a child, I even dressed up as a shepherd one year, because I was sick of being an angel. That really was breaking all the rules, but no one said a word.
However, there is one very clear connection I do have with Eileen Agar. That is collecting things. For years, I’ve walked along the beach collecting shells and other detritus. Indeed, not unlike Agar, I actually used these shells while making cards. I have also kept other items like the cuckoo clock parts I salvaged from the neighbours throw out pile just in case one of us goes into sculpture. Ideas were definitely ticking over, even if all this stuff is currently stuffed in drawers or stashed in the roof.
Oh yes. Before I forget, there’s also the old piano currently sitting in our lounge room. As you may be aware, you can‘t even give a piano away these days, but I have plans to give this ailing piano a makeover and turn it into something else. Indeed, this piano has “POTENTIAL” written all over it.
Just like me.
When it comes to Agar’s works, I struggled to find anything I could really connect with. While I like a bit of surrealism, I also like to know what I’m looking at or at least have some clues. I just didn’t get that with most of her work. I didn’t get that spark, that intensity of feeling or any sense of identification. The closest I came was Head of Dylan Thomas, which I really do like after all and if I cut it out and stuck it to my wall, I know I’d love it. It’s just that trying to get through 26 artists in a month is a daunting task, especially when I’m tackling new artists just to fill in letters of the alphabet.
Yet, after reading about the colourful and effervescent life she led, it has made me wonder what we’d be like if each of us could be a 100% unadulterated version of ourselves, unimpeded by social conventions, expectations and our own inhibitions. Would we also be swinging from the chandeliers with the likes of Agar and Dali? Or, would we still be exactly who we are?
However, being creative isn’t just about breaking boundaries and social norms. It isn’t just about being consumed by the creative process, but being unable to live in the so-called “real world” either. There is a balance and some of those restraints are a good thing…a necessary evil. I do believe there needs to be some kind of balance, although I’m not always good at achieving this myself.
Lastly, there’s one very strong distinction between Eileen Agar and myself. Agar chose to remain childless to pursue her art, while I decided to get married and we have two kids and now three dogs, who are almost just as much work.
That’s something I’m going to think about as I explore these dead artists. How many of them married and had children…a family? Indeed, does an artist have the capacity to have two loves? Or, does art have to be all-consuming flame for you to make it to the top? Or, are there personality traits in these artists which aren’t well suited to long term relationships and the responsibilities of parenthood? As many parents know, parenthood is all-consuming. It’s very hard to switch off and it’s the same with the creative drive. It can be all-consuming.
It’s something to think about.
Each of us has our own choices to make.
A Letter to Eileen Agar
I am currently writing a series of letters to Dead Artists who have inspired me in some way. As it turns out, we’ve only just met after The Tate Gallery matched us up. However, I don’t think we’re about to run off into the sunset together yet. I have reservations.
That said, I quite fancy your Head of Dylan Thomas and I was wondering if you’d mind painting my head like that with a bird’s eye view through to my thoughts.
Indeed, perhaps I should have a go myself. I think my version would have something of Van Gogh’s Starry Night inside with all those enigmatic swirls of turbulence. I also like your idea of using collage and sticking bit on. I’ll need to give this a bit of thought and get back to you.
While others would probably ask you a question more pointed to your art, mine is addressing the psychological aspects. Did you ever feel self-conscious wearing your fancy hats, like the Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse? Were you ever concerned that people would laugh, and you’d be ridiculed? Or, do you have a thicker skin and couldn’t care? You really must’ve had a sense of presence, very much like your friend Salvador Dali.
I wish I could be more expressive and let a little more of myself out of the bag. I always feel I have to hold it all back. Keep smiling. Clean house, happy kids. Sometimes, it feels like all that Spray and Wipe can even wash away your very self. Yet, I know what it’s like to be laughed at. Ridiculed. I try to avoid it if I can.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
A Reply From Eileen Agar
Thank you so much for your unexpected letter.
“I have spent my life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and
light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence. But the English urge
towards philistinism is impossible to avoid, though one may fight it root and
branch. One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes and new possibilities
Rowena, don’t be afraid of yourself. Most people shoot themselves in both feet before anyone else has even taken aim.
By the way, we have more in common than you think.
If you put your daughter’s Mad Hatter Birthday Cake next to my Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, there’s more than just a passing likeness. Indeed, I might make myself a new Cafe Hat. Something with little cups and saucers stuck on top.
By the way, do you think you could include a packet of Tim Tams in your next letter please? I’d like to try a Tim Tam explosion. It sounds very indulgent and just my thing.
Featured image: Head of Dylan Thomas, Tate Gallery, London.