Fan­tas­tic voy­ages

Imma’s ret­ro­spec­tive of the work of Dublin-born artist Mary Swanzy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - WORDS BY AI­DAN DUNNE

Mary Swanzy (1882-1978) was born in Dublin, the sec­ond of three sis­ters. Her fam­ily lived on Mer­rion Square. Her par­ents, Sir Henry Ros­bor­ough Swanzy, an oph­thalmic sur­geon who played a cen­tral role in es­tab­lish­ing the Royal Vic­to­ria Eye and Ear Hos­pi­tal; and Mary (nee Den­ham), were, as Ju­lian Camp­bell put it in his 1986 study of the pain­ter, “of the pro­fes­sional Protes­tant classes who were so in­flu­en­tial in that gen­er­a­tion”.

Mary later learned that she had been a del­i­cate in­fant, to the ex­tent that her sur­vival was ini­tially doubted. But sur­vive she did, and went on to at­tend Alexan­dra Col­lege, then as now known for fos­ter­ing a spirit of in­tel­lec­tual and cre­ative am­bi­tion in its stu­dents. Although it was Vic­to­rian in its strict­ness, she de­scribed her child­hood as “a gift from heaven”.

She was fond of the the­atre and at­tended art classes on Saturdays. In her mid-teens, she was sent to the Ly­cée in Ver­sailles, then Freiburg in Ger­many, emerg­ing with a com­mand of both French and Ger­man. Back in Dublin, she took fur­ther art classes with May Man­ning, a con­tem­po­rary of Sarah Purser. John But­ler Yeats played a role in the classes, and Swanzy held him in high re­gard. She also be­came en­dur­ingly close to Purser who, with Man­ning, en­cour­aged her to study in Paris, which she did around 1905.

Her life in Paris, while agree­able, did not re­sem­ble the bo­hemian myth. Paris was, at the time, the cen­tre of the western art world and a mag­net for artists of many na­tion­al­i­ties. Usu­ally Swanzy was in bed by 8pm each evening and in the stu­dio by 7.45am each morn­ing, work­ing in­ten­sively from the life model. By all ac­counts she was strait-laced, con­sci­en­tious and hard­work­ing, to a de­gree that makes her sound a bit one-di­men­sional.

Af­ter a spell back home, she paid a re­turn visit to study in Paris in 1906. Camp­bell notes Joyce’s friend Con Cur­ran’s men­tion of her as be­ing a stu­dent of pain­ter and teacher Lu­cien Si­mon, which makes sense. She at­tended one of Gertrude Stein’s Satur­day soirées. Stein’s house was a con­cen­trated gallery of con­tem­po­rary and re­cent art in Paris. Swanzy sub­se­quently ex­pressed her ad­mi­ra­tion for Pi­casso’s por­trait of Stein.

Her fa­ther hoped she would be a por­trait pain­ter, and she did give it a try but in the end opted not to. Imma cites her un­hap­pi­ness with the fact that men tended to want to be painted by men. While some of her por­traits im­part a sense that she is not fully en­gaged, nonethe­less they do show real flair and gen­uine con­nec­tion with the sit­ter, more than enough to in­di­cate it might have been a worth­while course to pur­sue. In any case, a con­sis­tent ex­hibitor, she was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly well es­tab­lished and re­spected, in Ire­land and even­tu­ally in Paris.

Within the space of a few years prior to the first World War, both her par­ents died. The loss left her sad and un­set­tled, but gave her the lux­ury of fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence. Her im­me­di­ate im­pulse was to travel, in­clud­ing a visit to Italy and, over the years, reg­u­lar stays in Saint-Tropez. In Dublin, she shared a stu­dio with pain­ter Clare Marsh for a time, and had a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion in 1919.

Swanzy was not po­lit­i­cally en­gaged. As it hap­pened, she was in Dublin in April 1916. In a much quoted ra­dio in­ter­view with Andy O’Ma­hony in 1977, on be­ing asked about her po­lit­i­cal stance dur­ing a tur­bu­lent pe­riod in Ir­ish his­tory, from the Easter Ris­ing through the War of In­de­pen­dence and the Civil War, she re­marked that while she was in favour of free­dom on prin­ci­ple, she was against rev­o­lu­tions in gen­eral. One feels she greatly val­ued sta­bil­ity above al­most any­thing.

One day in March 1920, a masked group of RIC men en­tered the house of Thomas Mac Cur­tain, lord mayor of Cork, and killed him. A sec­ond cousin of Swanzy’s, Oswald Swanzy, was named at the in­quest as the de­tec­tive in­spec­tor in charge of the group. He was whisked away from Cork for fear of reprisal and sta­tioned in Lis­burn.

How­ever, Michael Collins’s in­tel­li­gence net­work, which in­cluded an RIC sergeant, soon lo­cated him and he was shot dead in Lis­burn that Au­gust. His death trig­gered a wave of loy­al­ist ri­ots and sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in which more than 30 peo­ple died. It is not clear to what ex­tent Swanzy was af­fected by these events, but the tim­ing does co­in­cide with the be­gin­ning of an ex­tended pe­riod of travel for her, and it is telling that, fol­low­ing sev­eral years spent abroad, she did not re­turn to Dublin but set­tled in Lon­don for the rest of her life (with the ex­cep­tion of three years dur­ing the sec­ond World War spent with her sis­ter in Dublin).

In any case, ini­tially she joined her sis­ter who was en­gaged in re­lief work with the Protes­tant mis­sion in east­ern Europe. In Cze­choslo­vakia, she sketched a great deal, pic­tur­ing lo­cal life – mar­kets, tra­di­tional pub­lic events, the moun­tain­ous land­scape – with crayon, of­ten work­ing on flimsy sheets of mis­sion notepa­per. Worked up into paint­ings and ex­hib­ited back at home, these draw­ings be­came bold Fau­vist com­po­si­tions. Swanzy im­me­di­ately or­gan­ised and em­barked on a more am­bi­tious jour­ney still, trav­el­ling to stay with an un­cle, a sugar mer­chant in Honolulu, via Canada and the United States.

The set­ting was stim­u­lat­ing for her. She wrote to Purser of the “per­fect cli­mate and beauty … I feel a draw to­wards trop­i­cal scenes”. In Honolulu, and dur­ing a sub­se­quent visit to Samoa, her paint­ing seemed to click into gear and she made prob­a­bly the most ac­com­plished work of her life. The best of these paint­ings are in pub­lic col­lec­tions and they shine in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Although she does not seem to have vis­ited Tahiti, men­tion of Gau­guin is un­avoid­able. Imma’s commentary – rather pu­ri­tan­i­cally and fan­ci­fully – com­pares her wholesome vi­sion to his ten­dency to sex­u­alise the women of the is­lands, prais­ing her “fem­i­nist and lib­eral view of the lives of these peo­ple”, pro­ject­ing cur­rent PC val­ues on to her in ret­ro­spect. Gau­guin was cer­tainly a dif­fi­cult, even dis­rep­utable per­son, and his be­hav­iour was in some re­spects in­de­fen­si­ble, but he did man­age to make a sub­stan­tial amount of great art. Equally, in Swanzy’s case, it

When she did set­tle in Lon­don, she em­barked on a cy­cle of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in her paint­ing that saw her draw on many styles and move­ments. She has been de­scribed as the first Ir­ish cu­bist, but her take on cu­bism was cau­tiously se­lec­tive

is fair to say that the trop­ics un­leashed in her an en­rich­ing di­men­sion of sen­su­al­ity that is oth­er­wise rel­a­tively lack­ing in a great deal of her work.

When she did set­tle in Lon­don, via a stay in France, when she seemed slightly adrift, she em­barked on a cy­cle of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in her paint­ing that saw her draw on many styles and move­ments. She has been de­scribed as the first Ir­ish cu­bist, but her take on cu­bism was cau­tiously se­lec­tive (with a nod to the Or­phism of So­nia Terk De­lau­nay and her hus­band, Robert De­lau­nay, per­haps, and to An­dré Lhote’s rather me­chan­i­cal ap­proach, which had such a last­ing im­pact on a gen­er­a­tion of Ir­ish mod­ernist artists through his role as teacher).

Look­ing at her work now, it ap­pears to most im­me­di­ately echo con­tem­po­rary trends in Bri­tish art and de­sign that come un­der the gen­eral head­ing art of the Machine Age. More of­ten then not, Swanzy’s no­tion­ally cu­bist or fu­tur­ist com­po­si­tions fea­ture a stylised but ba­si­cally nat­u­ral­is­tic mo­tif, nes­tled within an ar­range­ment of con­cen­tric curvi­lin­ear pat­tern­ing. Other groups of paint­ings veer to­wards ex­pres­sion­ism and sur­re­al­ism, us­ing car­i­ca­tur­ish dis­tor­tion, of­ten with al­le­gor­i­cal, moral­is­tic in­tent. They come across as arch and awk­ward.

Even Swanzy’s most sym­pa­thetic ob­servers baulked. Brian Fal­lon wrote of his reser­va­tions about this “fey, elfin whimsy of a fan­tasy world”. Camp­bell re­ferred to the “prim, Ed­war­dian feel­ing” that shows through the ve­neer of modernism. He quotes Ter­ence de Vere White, who spoke per­cep­tively of Swanzy as a “strict, up­per-class Protes­tant lady, I don’t think she ever quite gave vent to her feel­ings . . . her paint­ings have a sort of power not so much be­cause of what she says in them but be­cause of what she sup­presses.” That re­mains a fair as­sess­ment.

Mary Swanzy: Voy­ages. Main Gal­leries, East Wing, Ir­ish Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, Royal Hos­pi­tal Kil­main­ham, Dublin, Un­til Feb 17. The ex­hi­bi­tion will then tour to Craw­ford Art Gallery, Cork, from March 15 to June 3, and Lim­er­ick City Gallery of Art from June 20 to Sept 15 2019. See

Clock­wise from far left: Al­le­gory (c1945-49), Na­tional Gallery of Ire­land; Cu­bist Land­scape (1928), pri­vate col­lec­tion, cour­tesy Adam’s, Dublin; Girl on a Hill (1913-15), pri­vate col­lec­tion; Young Woman with a WhiteBon­net, (c1920), pri­vate col­lec­tions, cour­tesy Pym’s Gallery, Lon­don

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.