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How Mary Swanzy brought colour to cubism

Both a witness to and a participant in the birth of modernism, the Irish painter personified the experimental art of early 20th-century Paris.

By Michael Prodger

The painter Mary Swanzy (1882-1978) was for much of her career a one-woman personification of the art of late 19th- and early 20th-century Paris. She was both a witness to and a participant in the birth of modernism, and there was barely a style among the bewildering flurry of “-isms” of the early years of the century that she didn’t try. It counted against her in the long run because her work can seem so full of the influences of other, better-known painters that it is hard to discern her own artistic personality. This, though, is unfair; her paintings were not pastiches but real-time responses to the shifting artistic developments happening around her.

Although Swanzy had at least 15 solo exhibitions during her lifetime and showed her work in group exhibitions alongside figures such as Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Raoul Dufy and Henry Moore, she was both modest and a woman – a double burden for an aspiring artist. Nor did she have a bohemian legend to bolster her name: she may have studied in Paris in the years that fauvism and cubism were invented, attended Gertrude Stein’s celebrated salons and watched Montmartre become the centre of the art world, but she did not join in the rackety goings-on. “You did not sit up at night carousing and drinking and making a fool of yourself,” Swanzy later said. “I couldn’t afford to. I couldn’t afford the time to be idle.”

In later life she made little of the extraordinary circumstances in which she started her career, but they left their mark nevertheless. She knew Pablo Picasso – her senior by just four months – when he was first making a reputation in Paris. But, she said, “the names that are of note now were not known then”. Picasso was “just an ordinary person like I might be myself… a little man painting”. Nevertheless, she recognised that he and Braque had changed the course of art. Cubism, “which I still thought rather comic”, shook her out of her more conventional 19th-century painterly manners. “I had lost my other world, it had spoilt it for me entirely. [Cubism] had killed the other thing for me… I couldn’t look at that stuff at all.”

[see also: The rural fantasies of Helen Allingham]

A degree of gentility – personal and painterly – was inherent. Swanzy was born in Dublin to an eminent Protestant ophthalmologist father and a mother who was a descendant of John Knox. She attended a finishing school in Versailles and then a second establishment in Freiburg. By then fluent in French and German, she was taught art back in Dublin by John Butler Yeats, the painter father of WB Yeats, and looked set for a career as a portraitist. In 1905, however, she went to Paris and what she found there elbowed her on to a different track.

The early influence of modernism on her work was initially tentative: her depiction of the gardener Gertrude Jekyll in around 1910, for example, comprises a conventional portrait set against a rapidly brushed and colour-rich background. Over the years she worked in any number of manners, from post-impressionism, fauvism and cubism to orphism, futurism and symbolism. Nevertheless, she never quite shook off her breeding, and there is a sense of decorum and restraint in all her work, as if she were incapable of fully letting go. Following her progress is not easy: she dated few of her works and preferred to sell to private clients, making her paper trail harder to trace.

Swanzy’s artistically polyglot tendencies were intensified by her travels. When her parents died in quick succession before the First World War, she found herself financially independent and moved to Florence to “settle” her life and also spent time in St Tropez. During the war she lived in Dublin, exhibited with the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris and travelled to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to visit her sister, who was engaged in relief work.

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Although Swanzy was not political, she was caught up in Ireland’s war of independence when a relative, Oswald Swanzy, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, was killed, it is believed, on Michael Collins’s orders. The murder and the riots that followed spooked her, and she left Ireland to go travelling. It seems she wanted to get as far away as possible: she went to Quebec and then on to Honolulu, where an uncle was a sugar merchant, and from there she travelled 2,500 miles by sea to Samoa. On her return she moved to Blackheath in south-east London, which was to remain her home for the rest of her life.

Samoa in particular awakened in Swanzy a love of rich tropical foliage, and she produced a series of works showing local women among palm trees and a profusion of greenery. Here was a place a world away from sectarian Dublin, and in her homages to Gauguin she was just as enthralled as he had been by the verdant landscape and the people of Tahiti some 30 years earlier. Swanzy’s paintings, however, have none of the sexual overtones of his paradisiacal fantasies. The way the leaves of palms and banana trees chopped the light into shards became a motif in many of her subsequent landscapes.

This undated painting, Abstract, now in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, shows how she combined the lessons of both Paris and Samoa. Here is the jungle interior, tessellated into a patchwork of polygons as the light reaches through the canopy. A river is suggested, with the reflections being softer and paler, and a clump of overhanging foreground trees give structure to the patterning. The scene is totally enclosed with just a small area of blue sky showing, but it is not a threatening place, rather a joyous one with a colour range much lighter than Gauguin’s richer – and sometimes oppressive – hues. Swanzy’s is a world of senses too, but one that engages fewer of them.

The style of the picture is a remembrance of her Paris years and the orphism developed there by Robert and Sonia Delaunay in around 1912, when they took the uneven shapes that constituted cubist painting, filled them with colour and moved them closer to abstraction. In Samoa Swanzy discovered that these effects were not just the result of a European artistic experiment but could be found in nature itself.

Although Swanzy called painting her “hobby”, it was in fact her life. When you paint, she said, “you’re lifted up… you can’t breathe without it… it’s just everything”. She never married, not least because she feared that art and a partner were incompatible: she could control what went on her easel. A career as a portrait painter wouldn’t have worked, she reckoned, because “men wanted to be painted by men, and women were expected to paint pussie-wussies and doggie-woggies”.

Swanzy acknowledged too that being a woman had made her career much harder: “If I had been born Henry instead of Mary, my life would have been very different.” Nevertheless, she painted her last picture at the age of 90 in 1972, Reading Employment Offer Column – a return to her youth and a homage to Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker of 1901. Despite physical frailties, she was still in thrall to art, even if arthritis meant she had to tape her brushes to her fingers.

[see also: Carl Moll’s paintings for a perfect life]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls