Design a site like this with WordPress.com
Get started

The Oceanographic Expeditions of Eileen Agar’s Marine Collage

30 September 2021

Christina Heflin, Royal Holloway, University of London

Eileen Agar’s Marine Collage (1939) is exactly what it suggests: a collage of marine images. However, beneath the surface, there is an entire story of pioneering undersea exploration. The piece is a quadriptych, and the strata of collaged layers for each quadrant have a ground piece beneath a silhouetted image with further elements atop it. The negative space’s contents in the silhouettes features images of creatures from the most profound depths of the sea. The scenes are fascinating to behold, and some of the creatures appear fierce while others are otherworldly. In addition to these aesthetic qualities, the collage source material’s historical context enriches the work, providing an expeditionary tale in each vignette. This essay aims to discuss the underlying aspects of Agar’s collage, which cover topics such as women in science, marine biological research, and taxonomic identification.

We can trace the provenance of these undersea images to two sources. The first is Else Bostelmann’s paintings created whilst on underwater explorer and head of William Beebe’s oceanographic expedition off the coast of Bermuda in the late 1920s. These were the first glimpses of deep-sea fishes as they were seen live in their habitat. They were brought to the surface thanks to Beebe’s sketches and a phone line travelling from the bathysphere (the first ever to do so), through which precise descriptions were relayed and translated by Bostelmann into striking marine biological studies.[1] The collage’s second source was naturalist and British Museum keeper George Shaw’s The Naturalist’s Miscellany or, Coloured figures of natural objects; drawn and described immediately from nature, which was published between 1789 and 1813.[2] This  twenty-four-volume natural history series consisted of species of flora and fauna observed whilst on expeditions in Oceania, the Americas, and south Asia.[3] Its      publication coincides with the colonisation of eastern Australia, and many of the images from this series introduced these specimens in the west, including the platypus.[4] Shaw, a founding member of the Linnean Society, was instrumental in naming some of these animals.

Working from the top left quadrant and moving clockwise, I will highlight the aspects of the collages which relate to the excursions. We start with a painting of two specimens of dragonfish. They were made during the Bermuda expedition by the Department of Tropical Research of the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society, henceforth WCS).[5] This painting, as well as others in this collage, appeared as part of a 1932 National Geographic supplement accompanying the article “The Depths of the Sea: Strange Life Forms a Mile Below the Surface,” by Beebe. The plate series, titled “Fantastic Sea Life from Abyssal Depths,” consisted of eight images of marine fauna painted by Bostelmann.

Women were an important part of Beebe’s expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s, taking on active roles as laboratory researchers and maintaining lines of communication whilst Beebe was in the bathysphere; Bostelmann’s role as a documentary artist was crucial.[6] Beebe’s project was ground-breaking for its largely female team, and despite criticism for the “de-professionalization of the field” by including women, he claimed “he’d hired his team for their ‘sound ideas and scientific research.’”[7] These expeditions made major contributions to the field of oceanography, and these artists’ and scientists’ expertise laid the groundwork for further research and exploration.[8] Also in this section of the collage is a round object nestled into the crook of the swerving dragonfish. The image source notes its name as Heart Chama and is found in Shaw’s natural history series. The mixture of the sharp-toothed fish with the heart-shaped cockle is but one of the many ways in which Agar used natural imagery to demonstrate the untold depths of the sea and its bizarre fauna.

In the top right quadrant, Agar has shifted from fierce fishes to creatures that appear completely otherworldly. Like the previous segment, this section features elements from both publications. These deep-sea squid were by Bostelmann from the Bermuda expedition. This quadrant’s second element, the pink, membranous floating sac is the “Animal of the Nautilus Pompilius,” from Shaw’s Naturalist’s Miscellany.[9] With the truncated squids’ eye-spotted tendril-like tentacles and the nautilus animal’s globular body, the scene does not immediately give the viewer the impression that these are real animals. Instead, Agar invites us to believe our eyes and observe the strange found in the marine world.

In the bottom right quadrant, there is an image of a Tanagra or Athena/Minerva statue, with a limpet in place of its head. The source of the statue is unknown, but the limpet is from Shaw’s natural study.[10] Titled “The Brown Patella,” little information is included about the creature, save its habitat and its other name, the brown Indian Limpet.[11] This ensemble recalls a devolved vision, with the evolutionarily less-advanced creature taking the place of the human head, here symbolised by the goddess of wisdom and the arts. Agar unites art and science in the mind and presents the sagacity of the marine.

Lastly, in the bottom left section, there are two black dragonfish. Like quadrants one and two, this section is a composite of both scientific publications. The base of the silhouette is from the same National Geographic supplement. Beebe described these fish in his essay, stating that the chin barb is for tactility and light which he observed briefly from the deep sea but did not survive long out of the depth. Precision was essential for his descriptions, as Bostelmann used them to blindly render the drawings based on his underwater observation, relayed to chief technical associate Gloria Hollister Anable via telephone who immediately transcribed.[12] Bostelmann’s drawings were based on Beebe’s accounts a mile below. The final element from this collage is the eel that Agar placed atop the dragonfish. The plate is “Zebra Gymnothorax” from Shaw’s studies of nature.[13] Here we see Agar reverting to the dangers of the marine in the fish with gnashing teeth and the serpentine eel.

Beebe’s scientific expedition team in Bermuda challenged gender norms, making Agar’s use of this magazine symbolic. Furthermore, the use of these resources speaks to Agar’s interest in exploration. The Naturalists’ Miscellany included newly discovered species and were some of the first instances of documentation of flora and fauna from Oceania for the western world. Beebe’s own expeditions were ground-breaking in its introduction of certain never-before-seen deep-sea fauna from his explorations. Though aesthetically intriguing, this collage also demonstrates maritime exploration which fits in with Agar’s overarching theme of the natural world.


Image Credit / Caption: Eileen Agar, Marine Collage (1939), Collage on paper, 580 x 410 mm, The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art in the Israel Museum. B99.1507.

Sources:

Beebe, William. “The Depths of the Sea: Strange Life Forms a Mile Below the Surface.” National Geographic LXI, no. 1 (January 1932): 65-88.

Bostelmann, Else. “Fantastic Sea Life from Abyssal Depths.” National Geographic LXI, no. 1 (January 1932): Plates I-VIII.

Calaby, J. H. ‘Shaw, George (1751–1813)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shaw-george-2651/text3697, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 11 September 2021.

Dickinson, Edward & Bruce, Murray & Dowsett, Robert. “The Naturalist’s Miscellany by George Shaw (1789-1813): an assessment of the dating of the parts and volumes.” Archives of Natural History 33 (2006): 322-343.

Shaw, George. “The naturalists’ miscellany, or, Coloured figures of natural objects; drawn and described immediately from nature.” Wellcome Collection, [The Zebra Gymnothorax, Vol. 9, 144-145].

Shaw, George. “The naturalists’ miscellany, or, Coloured figures of natural objects; drawn and described immediately from nature.” Wellcome Collection, [Animal of the Nautilus Pompilius, Vol. 14, 229].

Shaw, George. “The naturalists’ miscellany, or, Coloured figures of natural objects; drawn and described immediately from nature.” Wellcome Collection. [The Brown Patella, Vol. 15, 102].

Shaw, George. “The naturalists’ miscellany, or, Coloured figures of natural objects; drawn and described immediately from nature.” Wellcome Collection, [Heart Chama, Vol. 15, 268].

“These women unlocked the mysteries of the deep sea,” National Geographic, accessed June 19, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/these-women-unlocked-the-mysteries-of-the-deep-sea.

Woodward, B. B., and Jacob W. Gruber. “Shaw, George (1751-1813), natural historian.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. accessed June 20, 2021. https://www-oxforddnb-com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-25250.

[1] Beebe, “The Depths of the Sea,” 65. “These women unlocked the mysteries of the deep sea,” National Geographic, Accessed June 19, 2021.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/these-women-unlocked-the-mysteries-of-the-deep-sea.

[2] Woodward and Gruber. “Shaw, George (1751-1813), natural historian.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed June 20, 2021. https://www-oxforddnb-com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-25250.

[3] Woodward and Gruber. “Shaw, George (1751-1813), natural historian.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed June 20, 2021. https://www-oxforddnb-com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-25250.  “The naturalists’ miscellany,” Wellcome Collection, [Heart Chama, Vol. 15, 268]

[4] Dickinson, Bruce, and Dowsett, “The Naturalist’s Miscellany by George Shaw,” passim.

[5] Bostelmann, “Fantastic Sea Life,” Plate VIII.

[6] “These women unlocked the mysteries of the deep sea,” National Geographic,

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/these-women-unlocked-the-mysteries-of-the-deep-sea Accessed June 19, 2021.

[7] “These women unlocked the mysteries of the deep sea,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/these-women-unlocked-the-mysteries-of-the-deep-sea Accessed June 19, 2021.

[8] Oceanographer Sylvia Earle credits this work with her own inspiration to join the field of marine biology. “These women unlocked the mysteries of the deep sea,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/these-women-unlocked-the-mysteries-of-the-deep-seaAccessed June 19, 2021.

[9] “The naturalists’ miscellany,” Wellcome Collection, Animal of the Nautilus Pompilius, Vol. 14, 229.

[10] “The naturalists’ miscellany,” Wellcome Collection. [The Brown Patella, Vol. 15, 102],

[11] “The naturalists’ miscellany,” Wellcome Collection. [The Brown Patella, 103].

[12] “These women unlocked the mysteries of the deep sea,” National Geographic,

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/these-women-unlocked-the-mysteries-of-the-deep-sea Accessed June 19, 2021.

[13] “The naturalists’ miscellany,” Wellcome Collection, The Zebra Gymnothorax, Vol. 9, 144-145.

Advertisement

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑