Culture Sip: Aileen Agar at the Whitechapel Gallery

In this segment of the Culture Sip, we’re exploring exhibitions that place the spotlight on certain artists, finding wines that we think pair well with the paintings and personalities on display. We headed to the Whitechapel Gallery to get to know the works and worldview of Aileen Agar, one of the UK's most important female artists of the 20th Century. We chose a bottle we think reflects this playful British artist - who artistic identity is defined by a kaleidoscope of styles, from Surrealism to Cubism to portraiture to collage -best.

 

Art and Wine

Wine and art have, for many centuries, been closely entwined – from classical depictions of wine-fuelled Roman Bacchanalia to images of French impressionists enjoying a glass of rouge (or Absenthe) as they struggle to re-ignite their burning passion for paint. But wine is more than an object depicted on canvas or in clay, it’s a means of communicating, in both the way we drink and buy it. Much like art, it’s purchased for the symbols it represents – financial, social, cultural. It’s no surprise, then, that winemakers are increasingly drawing threads between their wine and art, and that wineries place aesthetics at the heart of their marketing strategies. When it comes to small-production wines, winemakers play a creative role in the process – it’s what makes their wines so unique. Winemakers have at their disposal raw materials: soils, vines, grapes, terroir. We believe great wine is that which seeks to celebrate, not obscure, its raw materials, so we see our winemakers as artists with the choice over how to make the best from those raw materials – whether they tend down a more conservative route, or a route a little more aligned with the works of Abstract Expressionists, in the search for something a little more boundary pushing.

 

Eileen Agar, Angel of Anarchy

19th May – 29th august

Paired with Nu Vino Rosso, Gian Luca Colombo

This week, we’re heading to the Whitechapel Gallery which, until 29th August, is showcasing ‘Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy’.

‘’I have spent my whole life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence. One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes and new possibilities of discovery.”

 

Transforming the everyday into the extraordinary was where the talent of Eileen Agar really lay. There – and in Parisian rooftop dancing or Cornish rock-pooling. Her media was as varied as her interests - she created pieces in paint, collage, photography, and sculpture, all the while achieving something magical: the union of order and chaos, reflected in her fusion of motifs from classical art, the natural world, abstraction and beyond.

 

Aileen Agar

Eileen Agar, Erotic Landscape, 1942, Collage on paper, 255 x 305 mm. Private collection © Estate of Eileen Agar/Bridgeman Images. Photograph courtesy Pallant House Gallery, Chichester © Doug Atfield

Working between the 1920s and the 1990s, her career was colourful to say the least and the Whitechapel Gallery’s latest retrospective of her work over the years demonstrates that in all its kaleidoscopic glory, featuring over 200 works and objects that illustrate, sculpt, and collage the artist’s life. One of the few women to show works at London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, Agar used Surrealism as a weapon to inject wit and intense emotion into the concurrent artistic style: Cubism – a considerably more analytical realm. The interplay between these two styles was what made Agar so unique, standing her apart from her peers (and friends), Andre Breton, Paul Nash and Man Ray, to name a few...and facilitated her commentary on a society thrown into chaos in a period of considerable social change.

Born into a wealthy family in Argentina, Agar rebelled against her strict upbringing, straitjacketed by rigorously academic schools in England, and eventually pursued a passion for art ignited by her schoolteacher, Lucy Kemp-Welch. This flame led her to the Slade school of art where, again, she found herself frustrated by the limitations of traditional art education. The Surrealist in Agar fell in love with the idea of collage – pulling together juxtaposing materials, objects, text extracts and textiles as a way of allowing the unconscious mind to transform once-mundane pieces into new creations and new narratives. The natural world became a key source for Agar on the hunt for contributions to her collages, favouring the organic over the ready-made – the latter was taking centre stage in Surrealist circles in the 1930s. 

She said, “I surround myself with fantastic bric-a-brac in order to trigger my imagination, where it is a certain kind of sensitive chaos that is creative and not sterile order”.

 

Aileen agar

Eileen Agar Eileen Agar 1927 Oil on canvas 765 mm x 641 mm NPG 5881 © The estate of Eileen Agar

She also said, “Life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play.” – you can see which camp of winemaker we’re inspired to look to as the source of Agar’s Culture Sip..

The extent to which Agar stood out from the crowd is accentuated in those quotes and, of course, this exhibition. You’re greeted by a vintage Pathe newsreel from 1936. It plays on loop, filling the room with archaically sexist commentary on the artist in question, as she walks around London wearing a hat covered in fake seafood – she was filmed as the people of Pre-War Britain stopped and stared. Entitled Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, this hat was Agar’s version of Salvador Dali suffocating in a sea diving suit at London’s Surrealist Exhibition – they were both responding to the bore of bourgeois logic and enjoying themselves immensely in the process. It’s the seaside-inspired works – collages, assemblages, collections of objects – that really stand out at the Whitechapel exhibition. And it’s these works that really stuck with us when thinking about a wine from our collection suited to do justice to this colourful, creative, and playful British artist

 

Aileen Agar

‘Magnetically outlandish’: Eileen Agar’s Angel of Anarchy, 1936-1940 (left) and Angel of Mercy, 1934. Photograph: © Tate © Estate of Eileen Agar/ Bridgeman Images

As bizarre as a Bouillabaisse bonnet may seem, it’s the bizarre that is so beautiful when it comes to Agar – and what’s inspired our bottle choice for this week’s Culture Sip.

Playful, bright and boundary breaking, it’s a no-brainer when it comes to this British artist’s bottle. We’re pairing Gian Luca Colombo’s NU with the Whitechapel Gallery’s latest retrospective.

 “Life’s meaning is lost without the spirit of play.”

 

A playful bottle for a playful Brit

Produced from a blend of Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, the very foundation of this wine reflects Agar’s quirky cross-pollination of artistic styles. It’s naturally made, with minimal intervention – the perfect playmate for Agar’s passion for the natural world, sourcing found objects and combining them in ways to create something bigger and free from the control of traditional artistic styles. Through the avoidance of too much sulphur, and a hands-off winemaking technique, Gian Luca lets nature (wild yeasts) do its thing in the winery, resulting in a bottle that’ll stop you in its tracks, bursting with concentrated notes of ripe strawberries, cranberries, and blood orange. It’s refreshing both on the palate, and in philosophy, marrying two grapes that bring together these bright fruit flavours with an intriguing meat and earth undertone. A good analogy, perhaps, for Agar’s revolutionary backbone, which underpinned her life of play. Standing at one litre tall, with a red label and crown cap, it is as eye-catching as Agar strolling the London streets, and, sealed with a thumb print of Gian Luca himself, it’s a bottle as closely entwined with its maker as the extensive and varied oeuvre of the artist in question.

 

Don’t miss the chance to explore the works of Aileen Agar yourself - book via the Whitechapel Gallery website. We’re not encouraging you swig a bottle of NU on your way round, but we hope you’ll raise a glass to a visionary we think would have enjoyed this creation, a woman who was “buoyant, joyous, and resourceful” – much like a certain Gian Luca.
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