Mary Swanzy often defined herself as a woman who grew up in an era when Ladies have to paint pussy-woosies and doggie-woggies. Swanzy painted neither, working outside the accepted conventions during her long career. Independent and confident, she pursued what intrigued her, regardless of fashion or current movement. As a result she explored numerous styles throughout her lifetime and was one of the first women to paint in the cubist style.

Mary Swanzy grew up in an upper-class family that encouraged her artistic interests. She attended art school in Dublin. Like many artists of her time she found her way to Paris and was included occasionally in the salon of Gertrude Stein, one of  modern art's most important patrons. There she became acquainted with the work of Matisse and Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Daumier. Despite these revolutionary influences, Swanzy's formal education encouraged an appreciation for artists of the Renaissance. Each of these influences find their way into Swanzy's art.

After Paris, Swanzy returned to Dublin where she was one of a handful of talented female artists working in Ireland including Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. Swanzy's family urged her to follow the conventional path of Ireland's artists, which meant becoming a portrait painter and teaching. While neither of these pursuits interested Swanzy, to support herself she did some portraits as well as illustrations for periodicals.

Her first one woman show in 1913 opened to mixed reviews. The negative response from a conservative Irish public did not discourage the artist from pursuing her own path. Soon thereafter the death of a parent broke up her home but brought financial independence and Swanzy responded by traveling the world. In 1914, in an exhibition at the Salon des Independents, Swanzy exhibited alongside other modernists including Robert Delaunay whose Orphic-Cubist works influenced her direction. In 1916 Swanzy was included in an exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery in London and the following year she exhibited again in the Salon des Independents in Paris.

Some contemporary historians have noted that Swanzy's gender may have done more to free her than restrict her. Swanzy had the resources and the leisure to pursue what she wished. She was not obligated to generate income or concerned about establishing a reputation. Had Swanzy been born male, it might have been more difficult to resist the pressure to work in the accepted style and cultivate a following. Today Swanzy's reputation as the first Irish cubist is secure.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Swanzy painted the images included here. Like many other artists of the time, she did not date her works, but the influence of cubism and futurism on these paintings cannot be denied. Swanzy borrows the cubist strategy of fragmenting the form, and combines it with the futurists' approach of layering pattern to simulate motion. The skillful use of color and light, the considered placement of curved and angular forms work to make these two images among Swanzy's most compelling. There is a dynamism and energy evident that many modernists sought in their work.

More than likely these paintings were done sometime between 1914 and 1925 after she had digested the influences of cubism and before her cubist style softened, becoming less mathematical and more lyrical. Cubist Study of Skyscrapers illustrates how Swanzy was influenced by her travels. In this painting the arched doorways of Southern Europe are projected into futurist skyscrapers. Her choice of earth tones for the Italianate architecture and the bolder tones of purples and yellows for the skyscrapers add to the sense of the past evolving into a brighter future. This painting glorifies the city to come, containing the upward, forward motion typical of futurist images.

The same celebration of technology's promise can be found in Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers where the surging diagonal of the whirling propellers illustrates the hope and trust placed in the new machine age. The motion and the dynamic lines that cut through this composition link it with the more formal properties proposed by futurists. The fragmentation and expression evident in these canvases link Swanzy with the cubism of Robert Delaunay and Jacques Villon.

Swanzy's passion for travel took her all over the world, including Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In 1924 and 1925 she lived in Honolulu and Samoa. Swanzy worked and painted in response to each location. In 1926 Swanzy settled in South London where she lived for the remainder of her life. In 1943 she had a one person exhibition at the Dublin Painter's Gallery. After that she participated in group exhibitions around London, which included paintings by other important modernists like Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall and Henry Moore.

Like many, Swanzy was deeply affected by the despair and destruction created by World War II. From 1945 until the end of her life she painted using allegory and symbolism. Toward the end of her life, the work became more lyrical, less disturbing. Mary Swanzy lived the latter part of her life in obscurity in London but continued to paint up to her death at age 96. Ten years before she died, Swanzy was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin.

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Mary Swanzy (1882 - 1978) Ireland


Futuristic Study with Skyscrapers and Propellers

date unknown, oil on canvas, 21” x 18”


Cubist Study of Skyscrapers

date unknown, oil on canvas, 22” x 18.75”