Eileen Agar's 'Obelisk of Satisfied Desire'

An exceptionally rare surrealist sculpture not seen since the artist's 1985 retrospective at the New Art Centre, London
May 24, 2021
Eileen Agar's 'Obelisk of Satisfied Desire'

Is there a better, more relevant answer to André Breton's groundbreaking essay  « Crisis of the Object »  than Eileen Agar's Obelisk of Satisfied Desire ? Indeed, in his text, André Breton emphasizes how everyday life objects should be made to refuse and escape the reality principle in favour of the pleasure principle. In order to achieve this Freudian operation, objects have to be made to change their function, to renege on their utilitarian status and open up their latent significations, un-covering another kind of existence and letting it emerge and develop. The secret powers of objects, repressed by the part they are made to play in « waking life » have to break out at the contact with the viewer's subconscious : in that sense, they reveal the hidden powers of subjectivity in its fight against the drabness of reality, so long as that subjectivity desires to expand, and they let out of the bag of reason all the questions and provocations whose secrets are actually to be found in us : found objects, objects symbolically functioning, perturbed objects, oneiric objects, interpreted objects, cosntructed objects - all these categories, needless to say, may well interact and overlap, often in the one and the same object.


 Eileen Agar, Obelisk of Satisfied Desire, Mixed media assemblage


Eileen Agar's Obelisk of Satisfied Desire is one of these surrealist objects, perhaps one of the least elaborate but a most stunning one all the same. It encapsulates the unallayed eroticism which is so central to surrealism. In his lecture which he gave in Brussels in 1934 on surrealism and in the article which he published in Cahiers d'Art in May 1936 to coincide with the famous « Surrealist Objects Exhibition » in Paris, Breton defined oneiric objects as « solidified desires », adding that they represent the « objectivization of dream activity and its passage into reality ». In other words, the point is to hunt down « the mad beast of usefulness » by bringing together at least two dfferent objects so that the mind may rise above « the manifest life of each of them » towards a tense interaction of the exterior reality and the interior forces of the mind. Such an object is thus a bridge towards the subconscious and its awakening.


André Breton


If we give all our attention to Eileen Agar's Obelisk together with the note she wrote about it and left in the Tate archives, it soon appears that the whole conception of the object is phallic : the central piece, a majestic erection, is an elephant's ivory tusk which, Agar says, « was used in Africa as a torch » - with the link between the tusk and fire transforming the former into the source of flamboyant desire. The tusk springs forth from an inverted kitchen bowl and vigorously penetrates a kind of colander, on top of which a duck, Indonesian according to Agar, stands for the erotic symbol, so she says, of a pagan deity, all these exotic references reinforcing the erotic undertones and erasing, as in all primitive artefacts, the distinctions between the animal, the material and the human. Altogether, this concatenation of fragments, often assembled through the years depending on « the dictation of her subconscious », results in exacerbating the connotations each one may have, progressively making desire cross the path of chance, since they link  « the dictation of the subconscious to the dictation of desire » (Breton). Objects are literally making love to create this one inimitable object.


Eileen Agar, Obelisk of Satisfied Desire, Mixed media assemblage


Regarding the title, Eileen Agar calls our attention, in her note, to the fact that « one should recognize the reference to one of William Blake' s poems ». However, truth has it that the actual phrase by Blake is NOT « satisfied desire » but «  Gratified Desire » - but, I agree, the difference is minimal. The phrase occurs, with the capital at the beginning of each word, in a few Notebook Poems and Fragments written between 1789 and 1793. We know that for Blake « Gratified Desire » is the paramount means of having access to vision, to the discovery of the infinite through the blending of the body and the spirit. The poems of that early period of Blake's life are like as many manifestoes which announce the identity between sexual freedom and the power of the human imagination, and proclaim that « Love shouldn't be ruled by Law ». This celebration of sensual enjoyment, not for itself, but for the sake of the emancipation of the mind, is exactly what Eileen Agar emphasized, should I say « embodied » ?, in her work - this one more particularly - as well as in her whole private life.


But there is more. The use of the word « obelisk » is not incidental. It refers back to the sacred monument erected in the Antiquity in memory of a person or an event - in this case, possibly, a generic experience of the sexual impulse. Its phallic quality makes it an obvious symbol of fertility but its verticality also means the ascending movement towards regions beyond death ( as it does in Egyptian architecture). In Eileen Agar's object, the two forces meet, Eros and Thanatos, the former coalescing with the latter in a kind of celebration of life forces.


The object under scrutiny here is consequently not just the metaphor of the act of creation which has given birth to it but, more than that, it is the oneiric metaphor at the origin of ALL creation - a perfect transparent object, in Breton's sense.


 Michel Remy

 May 2021

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