The role women have played in the development of Irish art is clear when it comes to the emergence of modern art styles. It was the pioneering artwork of a trio of female artists (Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet and Mary Swanzy) that saw the introduction of Cubist and abstract art to Ireland.
Women in Art: The Cubists
In Irish art, women have often been instrumental in the development of modern styles. The main instigators in bringing Cubism to Ireland in the 1920s were Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet and Mary Swanzy. While their innovative work was not appreciated in an Ireland that was increasingly conservative and nationalistic following the Civil War, the progress they made is now celebrated.
Evie Hone is a well known stained glass artist, whose work Four Green Fields is now situated in government buildings. She first met fellow Cubist Mainie Jellet in the Westminister School of Art, when studying under Walter Sickert. The two later travelled to Paris together, studying first under André Lhote and then under Albert Gleizes. Hone started off with cubist paintings like Jellet, but later moved to working in stained glass. The backgrounds of these windows often feature geometric patterning reflecting the avant-garde style she developed through her training in Paris. Hone was highly religious, having spent a year in an Anglican convent, and this is often seen in the themes of her work.
Mainie Jellet’s abstract compositions focus on line, rhythm, colour and form. Jellet sought to explore extreme forms of non-representational art. Her dependence on form and colour lead to the creation of an austere abstract style. Cubism was not initially well received in Ireland. Jellet first exhibited her abstract works at a Society of Dublin Painters show in 1923. Critics were confused by the new style; an Irish Times reviewer described her work as “an insoluble puzzle” and another critic referred to “the sub-human art of Miss Jellet”.
She later toned down her modern style, combining it with religious themes, hoping this would have a greater appeal for the public and that they would come to appreciate her abstract aesthetics. Her work is now hung in galleries across the country.
Mary Swanzy’s work is also abstract, with a focus on shape and pattern, showing a strong influence of the work of Paul Cézanne. Swanzy was well educated, both artistically and academically. Her early teachers included May Manning and John B Yeats, and she later studied under both Delacluse and Colarossi. When studying in Paris, Swanzy visited the modernist writer Gertrude Stein who had works by Picasso and Matisse in her collection. She held her first exhibition in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1905. Her work gradually became more abstract as she experimented with colour and form. Swanzy did a lot of travelling, including visits to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In 1925 she moved to London, meaning her influence on Irish art was not as strong as that of Hone and Jellet.
In an Irish Times review of the 2013 exhibition Analysing Cubism, Mainie Jellet is spoken of as the Irish artist who most directly addressed Cubism in her own work. This opinion, so different from the one expressed in the same publication ninety years earlier, shows how the work of Mainie Jellet and her contemporaries has been re-evaluated and is now seen as crucial to the development of Irish art.
Women in Art is an ongoing series I am writing for TN2 Magazine, with the aim of rediscovering works by Irish women artists, and showing the important contributions these artists have made to the development of Irish art.