Irish Artists: Mary Swanzy and Cubism

Emergence of Cubism (early 1900s

Cubism, generally thought of as one of the most thought provoking and evocative art movements, served as a crucial link between 20th-century avant-garde art and contemporary new-age mediums. The movement’s “modernist impulse” challenged and instigated the established  “art canon” norms.

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.30.36 p.m. 1

It emerged amongst other radical movements, yet retained a unique element of mystique that was able to inspire crucial dialogues even though it may have been muddled with incomprehension and a certain annoyance. However, its success in simplifying objects through the use of geometric forms and implementation of repeated studies of the same views was seen as an artistic revolution. 

The whole notion of cubism is often linked to abstraction and its emergence can be divided into two phases. Around 1907, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselle d’Avignon gave way to the initial phase of cubism as a monumental and unprecedented piece of artwork and consequently, in turn, gave cubism its first major subcategory- Analytical or Analytic Cubism. 

Even though the painting is not constricted into conventional Cubist norms, it carries a lot of the primary characteristics of Cubism and is a very good place to start analysis of the movement.  The latter part of the Cubism movement, Synthetic Cubism, emerged in 1912.

Historian John Golding, describes the significance of Cubism as momentous, as it was the first major departure, in almost 5 centuries of painting, from “the principles of mathematical or scientific perspective”. 

During the Renaissance, analysing an artwork from a single and stationary point of view was celebrated, but Cubism sought to incorporate multiple viewing angles of a single subject and enabled the viewer to critically examine the artwork from multiple angles.

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.30.48 p.m. 1

Consequently, artists wanted to break away from the shackles of academic traditions and the established laws that were inherited from the Old Masters, hence, they no longer copied from nature or their contemporaries. They relinquished modelling, perspective, and realism, and sought to reimagine art through geometric forms. 

A completed cubist painting seemed like an assembly of interlocking pieces, each from a different point of view. This new movement gave way to an endless flexible visual culture, and artists like Picasso and Braque were in the forefront during this “revolution”.

Beginnings in Ireland 

As the Cubist movement flourished, especially in Europe, more and more artists and its patrons started appreciating it in several theoretical schemes. In Ireland, it played out in indirect ways, as Dickon Hall writes in his essay, Analysing Cubism: a disproportionately powerful influence was exerted by minor Cubist artists, through their teaching or writing about Cubism, or by artists whose work drew heavily on Picasso and Braque

Steadily, Cubist ideas started watering down and, hence, acquired local and regional forms as they spread into a number of “national modernist styles”.

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.31.04 p.m. 1

Ireland witnessed a rise in female artists who essentially dominated the Irish Cubist movement as the male artists devoted their time towards political issues. Seán Kissane, the curator of exhibitions at IMMA, commented, “It’s possible that some of these women had more financial independence than the men. Cubism didn’t sell, you couldn’t make a living selling these paintings. You could just about make a living selling political, figurative work. These women came from backgrounds that were very outward-looking and there was a tendency among their family to travel, to go to France and study abroad.” 

Within Irish society, women have played an instrumental role in the introduction and development of modern styles. Pioneers like Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett, and Mary Swanzy were key in introducing cubism to Ireland during the 1920s. Though their work, which was highly innovative, was not appreciated in the conservative Irish society, wherein, nationalistic ideals thrived following the Civil War.

Early beginnings: Mary Swanzy 

Although celebrated Irish cubists like Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett, and May Guinness have been critiqued and well researched by academics and art connoisseurs,  Mary Swanzy (1882-1978), one of the earliest abstract painters in the history of Irish art, was a leading pioneer in the Irish cubist movement. Her long career as a painter saw her emerge as one of the first female abstract artists who voraciously embraced Cubism.  Inspite of her contributions towards the Irish arts movement, her contemporaries, namely Jack Yeats, William Orpen, Paul Henry, Mainie Jellett, or Evie Hone, have enjoyed a much higher level of public recognition and academic support over the decades. 

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.31.16 p.m. 1

Hence, it is worth questioning why her work is not held in greater public regard, either in Ireland, England, or across Europe? Analysing her progression into a renowned Irish abstract artist was a struggle as art historians had to only a limited amount of information available and her shift from social, political, and artistic themes on canvas made it harder for them to authentically recognise her work.

Additionally, Swanzy lacked strong commercial backing. This resulted in almost no illustrated catalogues being produced and put her at a great disadvantage. When she was interviewed in her 90s, she stated that, if she had been a ‘Henry’ instead of a ‘Mary’, her life would have been very different. This statement holds ground as her sex was a critical contributory factor in her not having the reputation she deserved. 

The aim of this analysis is to try reinstating Swanzy as “a Modern Irish Master”. This historical neglect of her position as a leading female artist can be attributed to the prevailing misogyny within European cultural industry. Swanzy’s position within the Irish history and culture was further complicated by the assassination of her second cousin, Oswald Swanzy, who was an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary,  in 1920 by the IRA. 

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.31.30 p.m. 1

It is not just the compelling nature of her artwork that makes Swanzy a talented Cubist, but also her success as an individual who repeatedly eschewed the norms of the time and embraced individuality. 

Furthermore, she witnessed firsthand the birth of Modern Art in Paris before the First World War. This enabled her to evolve rapidly via artistic experimentation and transformed her painting methods. Her paintings highlighted her ‘fluency’ in a variety of painting styles, but she did not, however, fall into a melange, even if she did have a succession of “influences”.

She travelled to countries like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, wherein, her sister was involved in postwar relief work. Swanzy showed a hunger for foreign places and historical landmarks, and through this,  she was successful in translating it into her paintings as shown in 1923, when she travelled to Honolulu, Hawaii where she stayed with an aunt in Samoa. She painted the islanders in their raw and traditional environment. From this point onwards her career became less Irish-based, and increasingly  “cosmopolitan”.

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.31.43 p.m. 1

Slowly, exhibits of her work in Paris became more frequent and she was finally dislpayed at the Salon des Beaux-Arts. Swanzy also famously attended the salon of Gertrude Stein, wherein she saw many famous avant-garde works, primarily Picasso’s iconic Portrait of Gertrude Stein. Consequently, Swanzy travelled extensively and was exposed to influences such as Cubism in Paris, Vorticism in London, and Futurism in Italy.

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.31.53 p.m. 1

A woman of many styles 

Artists like Mainie Jellett have been more celebrated and critically acclaimed than Swanzy whilst discussing the Irish cubist movement, however, when analysing the application of cubist techniques and their norms, especially drawing comparisons between Swanzys’ Woman with White Bonnet to Jelletts’ Seated Female Nude, it’s Swanzy’s Cubist principles that highlight her fluency in geometric techniques and multiple viewpoints.

mary swanzy woman with a white bonnet

Screenshot 2021 06 12 at 3.32.20 p.m. 1

When observing this composition by Swanzy, it can be analysed that her artwork consists of carefully painted horizontals and diagonals that are complemented with curves and hemispheres that bisect the lines exquisitely. The composition is almost ‘completely abstract’. It’s only the face of the sitter that has any glimmer of readable description. It is entirely two-dimensional and has no perspective, as is usually the case with Analytic Cubism. When compared to the Seated Female Nude, Woman in White Bonnet strikes as more cubist and seems to fit in the Cubism movement. Even though the date is unknown, if it does indeed date from the 1920s, then it places Swanzy as the most avant-garde Irish painter of the time.  Throughout her artistic career, her painting range was very versatile and included styles like Cubism and Surrealism. Therefore, she is considered to be the first true Irish Cubist by many scholars and art experts. 

Swanzy’s work can primarily be called abstract, as it places special focus on shapes and patterns, and one can draw parallels from  the works of Paul Cézanne. She was well educated, both artistically and academically, and was taught by the likes of May Manning and John B. Yeats.  Her first exhibition was held in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1905, and, as the years progressed,  her work gradually became more abstract as a result of her experimentation with colours and forms. As stated before, the reason Swanzy can be put over her contemporaries is the fact that she was a very well-travelled individual. In 1925, she moved to London, somewhat making her influence on Irish art, though not as strongly as of Hone and Jellett.

happy tenants

While analysing her work now, it seems to be echoing contemporary British art trends and designs that come under the general heading of the Machine Age. Mary Swanzy was, without a doubt, the first and only Irish Futurist painter. 

Swanzy’s futurist and avant-garde style 

In spite of many Irish painters being exposed to the latest trends that revolved around Post-Impressionist art, it was still a relatively slow process for these “Modernist” trends to be embraced by the local Irish public. One of the main and most crucial reasons for this was the country’s political and cultural history. The partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Free State in the same time period as Mary Swanzy saw an environment prioritize Gaelic revival or inward looking, and other nationalist ideologies. Even though the Gaelic Revival movement began in the 19th century, initially as a literary revolution, it slowly spread into several other art fields as well. 

Moreover, Terry Eagleton noted that there was almost no avant-garde work in Ireland, and how industrially backward the nation as there were no note-worthy encounters between art and technology. He also stated that it was the Anglo-Irish who embraced the notion of Modernism. As they were the politically marginalised class, they turned to the new art movements that gave them a sense of community and belonging. In spite of these challenging barriers, the avant-garde finally penetrated the Irish cultural landscape around 1910. 

With the help of media coverage and her extensive travels, Swanzy must have been well aware of the futurist avant-garde movements since their inception. She was one of the very few artists to witness this because of the opportunity to travel around the world and experience different art movements and learn from them as well. When she travelled to Honolulu, she tried identifying herself as a landscape artist and a lot of her work that’s been influenced by landscape can now be seen as “futurist”. The whole notion of Swanzy being a “cubist” artist was somewhat of an external tag or identification rather than what she identified herself as. 

The avant-garde movements of Cubism and even futurism aimed at “rendering the invisible” and Swanzy was at the forefront of this. Her paintings were more abstract than any of her contemporaries, as they demonstrated clear interest in objects associated with modernity and the avant-garde. Some of her paintings seemed to have drawn inspiration “from the tangible miracles of contemporary life, from the iron network of speed which winds around the earth, from the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, the marvellous flights that plow the skies, the shadowy audaciousness of submarine navigators.” 


The study and examination of any artist requires critical analysis of the specific details of their time period, as it aids in providing a deeper understanding of the artist’s work and provides a clearer picture.  As in the case of Mary Swanzy, it is obvious that even though the extensive travels around Europe and the world enabled her to extend her artistic vision and keep up with the latest artistic trends, it proved to be a struggle back home in Ireland and its conservative Irish art establishment . 

For an artist of her calibre, someone who was the first Irish artist to embrace and showcase cubist and futurist principles, a proper appreciation and credit from the modern Irish art establishment is long overdue. Her artwork was displayed in IMMA’s exhibition- Voyages, 2018-2019, which aimed to reinstate her as a Modern Irish Master.


Gandharva Joshi
Gandharva Joshi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *