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The Autobiography of an Embryo

Eileen Agar

The Autobiography of an Embryo

Eileen Agar
  • Date: 1933 - 1934
  • Style: Surrealism
  • Genre: symbolic painting
  • Media: oil, board

This complex and multi-coloured composition was painted by Agar in 1933-4, while she was living at 47 Bramham Gardens, Earls Court, London. Although not yet part of the Surrealist movement she was aware of ideas being promulgated by the group. Her idiosyncratic juxtaposition of ideas and images, which had first emerged in Three Symbols (Tate T00707), was developed further in The Autobiography of an Embryo.

The horizontal painting is divided into four sections with a decorative border running along the top and bottom of the canvas. The composition is reminiscent of the arrangement of a classical wall painting, with winged putti on top of the dividing columns. A Greco-Roman influence is also evident in the abstract shapes and patterns. Draped figures, which recall antiques statues, and the geometric patterns similarly echo the decoration on ancient Greek vessels.

Such an array of symbols evokes a cultural heritage. In the second section the head of a African woman resembles African sculptures and a head seen in profile refers to Italian Renaissance portraiture. More specifically, the squat figure who appears twice in the first two sections, represents Ubu, a character in the French play of 1896 by Alfred Jarry. These quotations are combined with modern elements, such as the brick wall in the second section and the graffitti-like head on the far right.

Organic and biological forms run through the composition. Agar may have taken her lead from the Czech painter Franticek Foltyn, who taught her in Paris, and who incorporated similar motifs into his work. Shells and winged forms are combined with plant-like structures, and circular shapes suggest fossils, cells or embryonic forms. Agar apparently kept a fish tank in the 1930s and was intrigued by the aquariums at the zoos in London and Naples. In her autobiography (pp. 84-5) she noted that when living in Paris she had frequently visited the Jardin des Plantes, where she became fascinated by 'the bones of that protobird, the Archaeopteryx'. This may relate to the winged structure in the third segment. She added, 'I was enthralled by fossils, their muted colour and embedded beauty. They reach us as signals in time, isolated objects which take on the importance of a problem resolved at some moment far back beyond the mists of human memory. I learnt about the secrets of animal structure and from there my thoughts led easily to the problem of human structure' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.240). This connection was made more concrete when Agar discovered that 'human foetuses have gills for about 12 weeks because in the evolution of our species we went though an amphibian stage' (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.240). (Chloe Johnson)

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