Wings of Augury
mixed media assemblage
34.3 x 24.1 cm
mixed media assemblage
34.3 x 24.1 cm
Acquired directly from the artist
with Zabriskie Gallery, New York, 1986
Private collection, United States
Surrealist Art Evening Sale, London, Sotheby’s, 28 February 2018, lot 50
Centre Pompidou, Paris, sold through Nicholas Hall, 2019
New York, Zabriskie Gallery, 1936: Surrealism, Objects, Photographs, Collages, Documents, 18 February – 4 April 1986
New York, Baruch College Gallery, City University of New York, Women Artists of the Surrealist Movement, 3 October – 7 November 1986 (not listed in the catalogue)
New York, David Zwirner, Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art (organized in collaboration with Nicholas Hall), 12 September – 27 October 2018
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Dora Maar, 5 June – 28 July 2019
Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, London, 1985, no. 136, reproduced p. 150 (as dating from circa 1936).
1936: Surrealism, Objects, Photographs, Collages, Documents, New York, Zabriskie Gallery, 1986, exh. cat., reproduced p. 15.
Dawn Ades, Olivier Berggruen, J. Patrice Marandel, and Nicholas Hall, Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art, New York, 2018, reproduced p. 149.
Assembled from objects collected during a pivotal stay in Dorset in 1935, The Wings of Augury presents an intricate and whimsical embodiment of Surrealist principles by artist Eileen Agar. After graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1929, the Argentine-born British artist moved to Paris where she quickly befriended André Breton and Paul Éluard, and became a regular among the French Surrealist crowd. In 1936, Agar signed the inaugural manifesto of the British Surrealist Group and solidified her reputation across Europe. The same year, she exhibited her famed Quadriga—which belonged to the personal collection of Roland Penrose—at the groundbreaking Alfred Barr exhibition at the MoMA, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, as well as at the equally pivotal International Surrealist Exhibition which preceded it in London. Five of the eight pieces shown at the London exhibition are categorized in the catalogue as ‘objects’, likely similar to The Wings of Augury. Scant record of these works exists beyond the 1936 catalogue mention, while many other documented assemblages from this period have since been destroyed, likely due to the fragile nature of their compositions.
It was a holiday in the coastal town of Swanage in 1935, where Agar was first introduced to established British Surrealist Paul Nash, which would prove to be a turning point in Agar’s career. The two quickly became friends and lovers and would go on to influence each other in their artistic practices, imbuing their works with the spirit of animism inspired by their surroundings. Nash, who was at that time compiling a guide to Dorset, began bringing Agar stones which he had collected on his walks. Agar began incorporating these stones, as well as all manner of mammal and marine life, into her works, emphasizing the aleatory philosophy of automatism and heavily practicing the Dada/Surrealist use of the found object.
Constructed in 1936, The Wings of Augury incorporates a wealth of organic objects scavenged from the shoreline, including feathers, shells, bones, coral and foliage, as well as rocks, ceramic fragments and fabric trim. Like a bird about to take flight, the assemblage rises from a base of aquatic embellishments into two wing-like projections formed by the horns of animal skull. Nestled between the horns is a classical terra cotta head which protrudes outward from a leaf-covered skull. Verging on the figurative, the assemblage presents a loose translation of the title, which refers to the Roman tradition of interpreting omens from avian flight patterns. By removing her materials from their original context and reassembling them, Agar taps into the unconscious forces guiding her own actions and reveals the repressed and hidden qualities of the objects themselves.
The Wings of Augury stands as an incredibly rare specimen from this key period in the artist’s career. Unfortunately, due to the delicate nature of the works many comparable assemblages from this time period have since been lost or destroyed, including those documented in early photographs such as Agar’s 1936 works David and Johnathan and Mate in Two Moods, as well as Rococo Cocotte of 1937. Most extant assemblages are now in British public collections; the Tate owning Agar’s second iteration of Angel of Anarchy (the first was lost after an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1938) and her 1939 Marine Object, and the Victoria and Albert Museum housing the 1937 Hat For Eating Bouillabaisse, which Agar was known to wear to exhibitions in her day. Agar would continue to incorporate the found object and chance elements in her work thereafter, featuring unusually shaped rock formations in her photography, and later creating bold and colorful compositions in mixed media collage.
Acquired by Zabriskie Gallery directly from the artist in 1986, The Wings of Augury since belonged to only one private collection. This rare work was first exhibited at Zabriskie Gallery in 1986, followed by the Women Artists of the Surrealist Movementexhibition in New York that same year. Agar continues to fascinate audiences as public interest in female Surrealists has risen in the last decades. Since 2000, Agar has been the subject of a number of solo exhibitions in England, and was featured in the inaugural exhibition of the Tate Modern. Most recently, her work has been included in the 2017 exhibition We Are Completely Free: Women Artists and Surrealism at the Museo Picasso Málaga, and the summer 2018 exhibition Couples modernes at the Centre Pompidou-Metz.❖