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When asked to write about a piece in the collection for the Jerwood Gallery blog I knew straight away that I wanted to write about Eileen Agar’s Pigeon Post, 1969. For those of you who live in or have been to Hastings you’ll know that the area has a huge population of birds, albeit mostly seagulls, but they all have their own character. I find Agar’s pigeon to be a rather perky pigeon and it never fails to make me smile!

Eileen Agar was born in one of my favourite cities, Buenos Aries, and moved to England when she was twelve years old. She attended the Slade School of Art (which was founded in 1871 and offered female students education on equal terms as men from the outset). Agar also studied in Paris and exhibited with the Surrealists in England and abroad. She started to experiment with automatic techniques and new materials, taking photographs and making collages and objects.

In 1936 she came to prominence as the only female contributor to the International Surrealist Exhibition. She lived a colourful life amongst artists and writers. Married first to Robin Bartlett (a fellow Slade student) and eventually her life-long companion Joseph Bard (an influential writer and editor), Agar had affairs with Paul Nash and Paul Éluard and numbered Lee Miller, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, André Breton and Ezra Pound amongst her friends.

In 1937 Lee Miller took several photographs of Agar, one of them is shown below. It features the artist alongside The Golden Tooth; an antique, carved wooden figure of a household god, found by Agar and Bard, in a junkshop in 1929. The figure was subsequently painted blue and decorated by the artist.

Agar struggled to produce work during and immediately after the Second World War. In her autobiography Agar wrote of this time; ‘At home I tried to work, almost with no success. The war overwhelmed me. I felt it impossible to concentrate on painting when you could turn to look out of the window and see, as I once did, a Messerschmidt flying low over the tree tops…on the whole the war did not inspire me, and I longed to get it over and done with’.

However, her artistic practice was revitalised in the early 1950s by a number of visits to Tenerife where the brilliant light and tropical colours of the island enriched both her palette and her imagination. Pigeon Post is one of a group of bright and richly patterned artworks of birds, dating from 1968 to 1971, many of which were exhibited at London’s Commonwealth Art Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1971. Agar commented on this reinvigorated process in her autobiography; ‘I used natural elements (the sea and sky, fish, birds, trees and leaves, landscape) to establish the context of nature, and then figures or technological artefacts (a bridge or an aeroplane) to bring out the dialogue’. In Pigeon Post Agar seems to have merged a bird and an aeroplane to create her striking piece.

The term Pigeon Post refers to the use of homing pigeons to carry messages. What message was Agar trying to carry with this piece? Interestingly pigeons have long played an important role in war. Due to their homing ability, speed, and altitude, they were often used as military messengers. Homing pigeons were used extensively in both world wars and for a while thereafter. The image, at first glance, to me looked very flat and two dimensional. However, when I took the time to look more closely, Agar’s use of a collage effect enhances the aspects of three dimensionality of the piece. This collage effect, especially on the bird’s plumage with different colours and patterns producing the appearance of multiple textures, gives the piece a real vibrancy. Her layering of the background, using sharp angles which could, perhaps, be an aircraft hangar also gives the illusion of depth to the piece. The art work is not large in size but the pigeon fills the canvas as the dominant subject. The first time I saw this painting I was instantly drawn to it as it is so striking. The predominant colours are greens and blues with the occasional flash of stronger colours. The pigeon’s feet are not birdlike at all, they are portrayed as aircraft wheels which give the suggestion of speed and movement to the piece, as if the pigeon will start moving out, beyond the confines of the canvas and fly off on its next mission.

In Agar’s autobiography she wrote ‘When I look back through my diaries, I am more than satisfied by the blank pages; for when there is no written entry, it means I have been too busy working in the studio to bother with a diary’. Agar continued to produce work up until the early 1990s. She was elected a Royal Academician in 1990, a year before she died. Agar was buried next to her husband Joseph Bard, who she described as ‘a man I loved and argued with; a man who made me laugh till I cried, who enthralled me with his serious talk and his uproarious stories’ in Gunnersbury Cemetery in Acton, London. Agar’s works can be found in both private and public collections in the UK and abroad and her work continues to sell, often at over the estimated selling price.

The autobiography I quoted from is: A Look at My Life, Eileen Agar, which is unfortunately out of print but can be found online. A selection of Agar’s paintings can be viewed on the BBC Your Paintings website and Pigeon Post is currently hanging in room 5.

Images (top to bottom): Eileen Agar, Pigeon Post, 1969  © The Estate of Eileen Agar / The Bridgeman Art Library; Portrait of Eileen Agar © Lee Miller Archives, England. 2010. All rights reserved.

04 April, 2014
Written by Shelley Mullane