Mary Swanzy / Female Nudes with Horse and Viaduct / c. 1930s / 76 x 63.5 / Courtesy Pyms Gallery, London
Pre-dating Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett by several years, Mary Swanzy can arguably be identified as Ireland’s first ‘modernist’ painter. However, her experimentation with a wide range of styles, along with her reluctance to participate in large exhibitions led to her being critically side-lined. Born Dublin in 1882 and is considered to be the first Irish Cubist, preceding Evie Hone and Mainie Jellet. Aged fifteen, she left Ireland to complete her studies in Versailles and later in Freiburg. In pursuing her career as a painter, she took further art and sculpture classes in Dublin where she was taught by Jack B. Yeats. Her initial career was as a traditional portrait artist.
Mary Swanzy was one of the first Irish artists to see the proto-cubist paintings of Picasso when she worked in Paris in 1906. Attending the open house of Gertrude Stein, Swanzy later recalled seeing unframed Picassos there including the iconic Portrait of Gertrude Stein, (1905-06). Although Jellett and Hone are often credited with being the first ‘modernists’ in Ireland it is possible that this is because of their greater involvement in Dublin’s cultural life. In fact it was 1923 before Jellett brought her first exercises in Cubism to Dublin, while already by 1920 Swanzy was creating works such as Woman in a White Bonnet that have fully resolved a figurative composition through the abstract means of Cubism and Futurism. Coincidentally with her use of Cubism, Swanzy was making visionary paintings in a symbolist style. Her decision not to follow a specific style impacted negatively on her reputation in her lifetime when Modernism and the market place dictated that a distinctive style was essential for the successful artist. Added to this is the fact that along with other Irish artists like Eileen Gray, Swanzy found Ireland an uncomfortable place to live after Independence. Her cousin had been shot by the IRA in 1920 so she chose to leave Ireland permanently.
Swanzy travelled widely visiting Hawaii, the Balkans, and Samoa and some of the warmth and exoticism of Paul Gauguin entered her work. She later settled in London where much of her work was made. She held strident views on the role of women in art making off the cuff remarks such as ‘if I had been born Henry instead of Mary my life would have been very different’ or ‘ladies have to paint pussy-wussies and doggy-woggies’ revealing that she was conscious of the ways in which her gender impacted on her career. But pragmatic and focused, Swanzy chose to use the advantages of her background to fund her work and to quietly continue her practice without the need of public acknowledgement.
Despite being one of the most iconic and recognisable of modern Irish artists, there has not been a substantial retrospective of her work since 1968; similarly, there is a dearth of published material available. This exhibition aims to make a definitive study of her work.
The exhibition is presented as part of the IMMA Modern Masters Series.
A fully illustrated monograph accompanies the exhibition.