“Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi.”
Looking at Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938) is to look into the dreams of insects. Or perhaps these are our dreams of insects, where our waking moments are an escape from the butterflies fluttering in our mind’s eye. Agar’s practice as a sculptor, painter and assembler of collages has always sought material from the natural world, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. Butterfly Bride is the latter, mixing together everyday information, symbols, ideas and dreams; all in conversation with one another. Agar’s practice was often questioning of these elements but there’s a sense of a more thoughtful spiritualism to the work. As with most collages, there’s a palimpsest of potential readings derived from the raw material being pre-existing. In this case, the work touches upon a Tao sense connectedness with the dream state through its cut-and-paste entomology.
The work, which was produced at the beginning the of the Second World War, begins with the printed pages of a book detailing the history of the British empire and its colonies from around the world. The words detailing the theft of the world have faded, becoming a textured backdrop. Over this is the blue silhouette of a woman who bears a passing resemblance to Queen Victoria, looking downwards. Both the colour and the posture suggest melancholy, a sadness heavy enough to droop the face downwards ever so slightly whilst the neck continues the respectability of posture. On top of this layer sits three objects; a dried leaf – the autumn years of a life – and two butterflies; the dreams of a past long since lived. The butterflies are specifically within the woman, perhaps fluttering ideas trying to escape the sadness of her poise. They are swallowtail butterflies, though not of the type of Agar’s native England, perhaps more likely to be that of her original birthplace of Buenos Aires; another colonial battleground.
“Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I was a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction.”
Insects are dreamlike in that their whole biology has been geared towards the basic instincts of survival and living; the aspects that we often fight against within us but which are allowed to manifest in our dreams. Insects enact our dreams in their everyday existence and so make a fitting symbol for our inner struggles against animal instincts and unconscious desires. Even something treated as typically quiet, friendly and as innocuous as a butterfly has the potential to speak of our inner selves; forever living the lie of underwings, never showing the true colours that attract us to others. Even Freud’s Wolf Man held a great fear of butterflies, the psychoanalyst concluding that the morbid fear of the insect was a real-world likeness for an inner fear of women. The designs of wings supposedly (albeit ridiculously) reminding the patient of straps on women’s underwear. Butterflies are freedom in one sense, especially in the gendered sense implied by Agar. In Freud’s world they are yet another cipher for male frustration. In Agar’s sense of the insect, the freedom of the melancholy woman here is probably similar; unshackled by a long life, a transient existence built solely on the sensory need to continue on.
“The transition is called the transformation of material things.”
Collage has clear potential in breaking down the barriers between inner and outer selves, the worlds occurring simultaneously in a cacophony of image. This brings us to the ultimate idea of Tao philosophy, quoted throughout: the idea that the dream of another state, another being, renders our own lives questionable. It’s a beautiful, humbling idea. It’s there in Agar’s collage too once the philosophy has been taken on board. For, who is to say which way round the relationship in Butterfly Wife really is? Perhaps it is the melancholy woman, dreaming of freedom away from the colonial history of conquest, finding freedom in the brief flights of a swallowtail. On the other hand, this transition of material things – a perfect summation of the process of collage itself – could favour the insects; fluttering from plant to plant in the dying days of a late summer, dreaming briefly of the sadness of a woman.
Wings and bones,
Bustle with an autumn breeze,
A last desperate flight,
Towards waking from sleeping.
I was watching butterflies fight,
Against the frost,
That froze their wings and my stare together.
Perhaps the butterflies regarded me,
In the pollen-dust daydreams of dying insects,
When they will awaken,
To be human once more.