Two unabashed, boundary-breaking women finally take centre stage.
“It is possible to find artists who behaved with respect towards the people they met, who didn’t abuse them”
At first glance, the lives of Constance Markiewicz and Mary Swanzy may appear mostly bereft of parallels. Swanzy was an Irish artist who showed striking eclecticism over the course of her six-decade career and dabbled in creative side-pursuits, while Markiewicz (to give a SparkNotes-length summary) was immersed in Ireland’s oscillating political landscape across the 1910s and 20s. Despite her highly prolific artistic output, Swanzy has been largely obscured from contemporary recognition, while Marciewicz has been re-propelled into public view amidst recent celebrations of the Rising’s centenary. Yet both figures are connected by their fearless, relentless trailblazing across male-dominated fields: though rarely acknowledged as such, Swanzy can be considered Ireland’s first ‘Modernist’ painter, while Markiewicz was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons (and the first to refuse her seat).
Two carefully-conceived exhibitions – IMMA’s Mary Swanzy, Voyages and the NGI’s Markiewicz: Portraits and Propaganda – give fresh insight into these intriguing characters. For Swanzy’s retrospective, the first on any scale since 1968, Sean Kissane has curated a six-roomed spectacle of her works, chronicling the artist’s colourful tendencies and creative malleability in unparalleled depth. Resplendent examples of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Symbolism and Surrealism permeate the collection, proving Swanzy’s ability to absorb the ideas around her and make them her own – like Picasso, who was her exact contemporary.
He said “good artists copy, great artists steal” and it seems so applicable to Swanzy. For example, she adopted many of the principles of Cubism but then continued to break them. As a result, critics have always had difficulty in placing her – she has been called a ‘Cubo-Futurist’ or a ‘Surrealist working in a Cubist convention’ – but all agree that she is highly individual and unique. One space of particular note documents Swanzy’s travels to Samoa – a high-stakes voyage she undertook in 1924, making her the first Irish artist to visit the South Seas.
While Gauguin is accurately cited as the first Western artist to depict these territories, the vivid lens with which Swanzy portrays her foreign surroundings is markedly different. “When [Gauguin] represents [Samoan] people in paintings, men are entirely absent from his images,” Kissane affirms. “He only ever represents women, and they are often naked – they are simply projections for male, Western, privileged fantasy. Now, Swanzy goes, and she sees both men and women – they’re wearing clothes, they’re working.
In terms of that colonial viewpoint on ‘natives’, there was always a sense that the lazy native needs the white man to come and organise them. She goes and says, ‘these people look perfectly busy, and perfectly content with their lives.’” His comparisons evoke a wider discussion of the #MeToo presence (or lack thereof) in art museums.
“When we talk about how artists like Gauguin should theoretically be censored from museums and taken off the walls, maybe they shouldn’t be taken off the walls but rather, the likes of Mary Swanzy should be put alongside them to show that it is possible, within the record, to find artists who behaved with respect towards the people they met, who didn’t abuse them.”
Whilst Swanzy’s staggering back-catalogue is laid bare, Markiewicz: Portraits and Propaganda takes a more concentrated approach, filling the National Gallery’s Room 31 with an assemblage of oil painting and photography portraits. A thought provoking compare-and-contrast emerges between the two mediums. The paintings exhibit one facet of her identity, harking back to her privileged roots, whilst the photographs reveal a revolutionary woman who has compellingly crafted her image for public consumption. As curator Donal Maguire explains, “All of the key figures involved in that period were having their photograph portraits taken, usually in the same studios: you’ll see the likes of Michael Collins against the same backdrop as Markiewicz’ portraits. However, [the men’s] photographs tend to be more statesman-like, where they’ll be in suits, sitting at a desk and writing, whereas she presents herself as a military figure; a woman of action.”
While Swanzy’s works are kaleidoscopic in their colour palettes – each canvas brimming with expressive, emotive layers – Markiewicz appears almost monochromatic in her portrait photographs, all attention centred on her tenacious silhouette.
She was a bona fide creative director in each image she sat for; her choice of clothing often playing a pivotal role in these wordless narratives. “Starting from when she was a young child, she took pleasure in dressing up. There’s a famous anecdote that, before she went to her first Sinn Fein meeting, she had been at a Dublin Castle ball – so she came to the meeting in her ballgown and tiara.
Nobody took her very seriously, and she was laughed at, so she then understood how to reshape her identity to fit the character of a Republican, a Nationalist, and how to use costume in particular contexts. That idea of ‘dressing suitably’ was something she was very aware of, and encouraging of other women to do so – to wear boots, trousers and be ready to fight and die for Ireland. She’d equally have no problem dressing up in a ballgown as well.” When viewing these images outside of their time period, one could easily forget the symbolism of some of her ensembles.
“These clothes were verging on treasonous: wearing the uniform of the Irish Republican Army, the Celtic Revivalist costume was something that had been outlawed for some time. The simple act of putting these on was a statement in itself.”
Their lack of professional similitudes aside, both Swanzy and Markiewicz were incredible boundary breakers. At last, they’ve been placed on a fitting podium.
Mary Swanzy, Voyages is running in the Irish Museum of Modern Art – as part of their IMMA Modern Masters series – from October 26 until February 17; Markiewicz: Portraits and Propaganda is running in the National Gallery of Ireland from October 27 until February 10.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady