Irish artist Mary Swanzy was a woman of many styles

Mary Swanzy

Irish artist Mary Swanzy’s reputation is being restored to its rightful place with a new exhibition at the Crawford, writes Marjorie Brennan.

WHILE the name of Mary Swanzy may be greeted with a nod of recognition in some circles, the work of this extraordinary Irish artist has gone very much under the radar in the public mind. However, that is now changing, with an ambitious retrospective of her work, first shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art last year, opening at the Crawford Gallery in Cork today.

The impressive survey, the first in 50 years, has been curated by Seán Kissane of IMMA and is fittingly titled Voyages. From Swanzy’s technically accomplished portraits, to her better-known works in the Cubist and Futurist style, to her joyful depictions of life in the South Seas, the exhibition is also a voyage of discovery for the viewer, a revelatory journey through the life and work of a true pioneer.

Swanzy not only witnessed the birth of modern art but was an active participant, experiencing one of the most exciting eras of creative upheaval alongside the likes of Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse.

Born in Dublin in 1882 into a well-off Protestant family, she trained at the Metropolitan school and a portrait of her father, ophthalmic surgeon Henry Rosborough-Swanzy was exhibited to great acclaim in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1905. “Dublin basically said ‘We have no more to teach you, you had better go off to Paris’,” says Kissane.

The impact of the change in milieu can be seen almost immediately in Swanzy’s work, says Kissane.

Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include Cubist Landscape
Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include Cubist Landscape

“During that period, post-impressionism was really the fashion… you can really see the colour and the brush strokes immediately start to come into her work,” he says.

In Paris, Swanzy became acquainted with the influential writer and art collector Gertrude Stein. “Already, by 1905, Mary Swanzy has been introduced to Stein, and seen the paintings of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and all of the other artists patronised by Stein, first-hand, unframed, lying against the walls in her house,” says Kissane, adding that Swanzy was very much part of this zeitgeist.

“Female artists are always ‘inspired by’ whereas male artists are geniuses or inventors. So it is very important to point out that she is exactly the same age as Picasso and everything around her is part of a tendency and a zeitgeist. She is not influenced by anyone.”

Swanzy first exhibited in Paris in 1914 but then WWI intervened. Although she lived through a time of great turmoil, Swanzy did not like to be drawn on politics, preferring to focus on her art.

“She was in Dublin during the Rising. In interviews, she is constantly pressed on what her political leanings are and she pushes it away, saying that in all revolutions, the baby is thrown out with the bath water,” says Kissane.

MACCURTAIN KILLING

However, there was no escaping politics when one chapter of Cork history would turn out to have a fateful impact on Swanzy’s life.

Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include Young Woman with a White Bonnet
Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include Young Woman with a White Bonnet

“In 1920, her cousin Oswald Swanzy [an RIC inspector in Cork] was implicated in the killing of Tomás MacCurtain [the Lord Mayor of Cork was shot dead by a group of masked RIC men in his home in Blackpool]. The army tried to hide him, and sent him to Lisburn but Michael Collins put together a group of hitmen and they shot and killed him on the steps of Lisburn Cathedral after Sunday service, which led to three weeks of rioting. Swanzy left Ireland six weeks later and never really came back,” says Kissane.

Swanzy travelled to Czechoslovakia to join her sister St Clair who was volunteering with a Protestant mission. Swanzy produced a significant body of work there. “I could have done a whole exhibition of her Czech paintings. It is a beautiful period,” says Kissane.

In 1923, Swanzy went to Canada, then travelled overland through the US to California and from there sailed to Honolulu, to visit her uncle Francis. After spending several months there, she sailed 2,500 miles to Samoa.

Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include Samoan Scene
Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include Samoan Scene

“So, she is a woman, who didn’t speak the language, doesn’t know the customs, had no connections there, and went off on her own, which is a remarkable achievement, at a time when women couldn’t even vote,” says Kissane. “There are only three modern artists that we know of who went to the South Seas, first and most famously, Paul Gaugin, Emile Nolde and the third is Mary Swanzy.”

In her paintings, Swanzy takes a more respectful and less patronising perspective than Gaugin.

“We see the labour of women constantly recorded… they are not the Paul Gaugin sexualised blank canvas onto which you project male fantasies,” says Kissane. 

Now, in the context of the #MeToo positioning of artwork in museums, we are obliged to give more context to the making of the work and ask if people were harmed. And in Gaugin’s case, they were, with his child brides and tertiary syphilis, etc. Whereas Mary Swanzy is making work, probably 15, 20 years later, but the gaze is so different. She is respectful to everyone she meets and they to her.

Swanzy is perhaps best known for her Cubist and Futurist works. Among these is ‘La Poupée Japonaise’, which, according to Kissane, places Swanzy at the centre of the avant-garde movement in the 1910s, and worthy of being called the ‘first’ Irish Cubist. “She is a fascinating character in terms of being so productive. The variety of styles can be bewildering,” says Kissane.

PERSONAL TWIST

In her later years, Swanzy’s work became more personal and took a somewhat darker turn.

“You have these strange late images, the beginning of a personal narrative which she has never explained. In her work ‘Roundabout’, you have these human/animal hybrids dancing… and a prison containing snakes, birds, monkeys. People said she had lost her marbles.

Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include The Melee
Mary Swanzy paintings on display at the Crawford include The Melee

“We will be playing an interview she did at 95 years old shortly after her retrospective [in 1968]. She bats back every question and she is as sharp as a tack. This is an artist who knew exactly what she was doing.”

According to Mary McCarthy, director of the Crawford Gallery, people should seize this opportunity to see such a significant collection of Swanzy’s amazing work in the same place.

“Swanzy has a particular place in our hearts, because the Crawford owns a number of her works. Swanzy and a lot of women artists of that period are only now being reclaimed in the public mind for their brilliance and how they were achieving equally to and in many cases, beyond, their male counterparts,” she says.

Swanzy once remarked that “If I had been born Henry instead of Mary, my life would have been very different”.

Kissane backs up this assertion, but perhaps in not quite the expected way.

“Given her social class, had she been a man, she would probably have been killed in the war. If not, she would have had to come home and be a doctor like her father.”

So, conversely, Swanzy’s gender may in fact have allowed her a certain freedom.

“Yes. She was also one of the millions of ‘spare’ women after the First World War which is also an explanation of why so many of them didn’t marry. And, for her, marriage wasn’t compatible with an artistic life. She said if you were married and had the responsibility of a husband and children, then you had no life left for your easel. She told one interviewer that the wives of the artists were all unhappy.”

Mary Swanzy: Voyages is at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, from today to June 3

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