The Whitechapel Gallery’s upcoming retrospective – Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy – curated by Laura Smith, was the first time I had heard the name of this artist. Considering she was a female surrealist, and the historical tendency towards muting the impact of female artists, this did not surprise me. The name of the exhibition itself is a lovely nod to not only one of Agar’s artworks, but a book of the same name Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism by Patricia Allmer, which examines this erasure in more depth.
Smith’s lecture included an introduction in the form of a brief biography about the artist. Upon hearing about her, it felt easy to place her as an extremely influential figure in the history of women’s art. Shaving her head to reject the expectations of beauty placed upon her by her mother and pursue her dreams of being an artist, refusing to pose for Picasso or become simply another muse amidst her male peers, and writing to deconstruct patriarchal ideas throughout the war and beyond, Agar’s near-century-long career contains a richness that is difficult to rival. Iconic tbh.
This is why, when hearing of Smith’s difficulties in firstly trying to build enough of a case to have this exhibition approved, it was so disheartening to hear that while working at the Tate her proposal was rejected multiple times, and in its current upcoming show at Whitechapel, the scheduled date for the show was moved from three years to three months, forcing Smith to seek alternative methods of curating in the height of the pandemic.
In the gallery’s justification of not showing a solo female artist’s works, it was mentioned that they feared it would not draw in enough visitors. It makes me feel as though despite the forward-thinking ideas that many museums have attempted to adopt recently, ultimately their focus will always be based on profit. Of course, the arts as a public sector are commonly known to be consistently underfunded, and I’m no museum director (just yet anyway). However, when you consider Agar’s seven-decade long oeuvre, experimenting in every possible medium she could and being centrally located in Europe at the height of key pre- and post- war artistic developments, you wonder how this show could possibly be anything but a success. If Agar had been a male artist, I doubt there would have been such hesitation.
I was hoping to post this blog to align with International Women’s Day last week – but in a horrible way I am glad I waited. In the past seven days alone, a tempestuous reaction of #notallmen, death threats and rape jokes were made in retort to any valid conversation raised by women about their safety within the world, and the multitude of names of victims that have been added to the never-ending list as a result of misogyny, racism, and intolerance have highlighted the ongoing necessity for feminism to continue to try breaking down these damaging attitudes.
Perhaps in light of these recent events, this is a key time for such a show to be happening. However, I can’t help but feel a bitterness that Smith was made to rely on a sense of community in order to source and bring together enough artworks by Agar to make a show. The banding together of an unofficial council of fans of Agar, beloved paintings that had been hanging in kitchens for years, and a collating of artworks that perhaps might not have been seen, feels far too much like a symbolic gesture of what women have had to do historically, simply to be seen.