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Voyaging into Intersectionality with Mary Swanzy

Ellen O'Sullivan writes about the complexities of artistic expression as a woman in the 1900s.

This image is taken from the Crawford Art Gallery website publicising the exhibition 'Voyages':

Voyages, an exhibition of the work of Mary Swanzy opened in the Crawford art gallery in Cork city nearly two years ago, and while the exhibition is no longer running, it does provide a useful case study with which to examine art in context, and through the lens of intersectionality. Swanzy was a contemporary of Braque, Picasso, and Matisse, and was an important figure in the Parisian art scene of the early 1900s. Her work was extraordinary, both in its sheer skill and its diversity of style. She began painting in a kind of temporal Impressionistic style, and as her career advanced, moved with the trends of the time through Fauvism, Surrealism, Expressionism and Futurism. I’ve honestly never seen such a varied oeuvre produced to such a high quality by a single artist. She is also exemplary not only in the fact that she was a pioneer of Modernism in Ireland, but a woman in a very male dominated field at that time. An outspoken feminist, she constantly challenged gendered norms and expectations, and unfortunately her contribution to Modernism as a whole has been ignored, to a large extent. I did an entire module on Modernism in my final year of studying Art History and did not hear her name mentioned once. However, although Swanzy was adaptable, experimental, and exceptionally talented, she was also closely associated with the horribly named ‘Primitivism’ movement.

Primitivism thrived in the European art scene of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is characterized by its drawing of influence from/ appropriation of Native African, Asian, and South American cultures. Paul Gauguin was a particularly prominent figure in the development of Primitivism, and Mary Swanzy’s work mirrors his quite closely. Gauguin spent the end of his life on the island of Tahiti, painting evocative scenes of young Tahitian girls, nude or semi-nude, against the backdrop of the lush island jungle. Primitivism takes on an uncomfortable voyeuristic gaze, one that is compounded by the fact that Gauguin was a paedophile who ‘married’ a native girl when she was only 13. A French artist, Gaugin also exemplifies the full extent of the colonial gaze in French Polynesia at the height of the Second Colonial Empire. Swanzy fully embraced Gauguin's Primitivism, leaving Paris and studying the native people, flora and fauna of Hawaii and Samoa. Although she is more preoccupied with vegetal and landscape scenes, she too indulges in painting nude genre scenes of young native women and girls. Interestingly, Swanzy is often let off the hook for the same style of work that Gaugin is lambasted for, as critics tend to myopically focus on gender and stay wilfully ignorant of the intersected colonial gaze.

Swanzy was no stranger to the reality of colonial occupation in her personal life. Hailing from an Anglo-Irish family with extended relatives owning and running sugar plantations in Hawaii,[1] the painting and observation of native people on the artists terms alone takes on more sinister implications, and the adoption of the ‘Primitivism’ style is thus almost inevitable in this setting. The complications of her political shortcomings were conveniently smoothed over in this exhibition which ignores her imperialistic tendencies, and instead lauds her as a feminist hero. This is a paradigm that appears again and again in feminist discourse and is something that is particularly relevant in the present global turmoil of social upheaval. Historical women, and indeed some present-day feminists, are routinely celebrated as heroes and saints of the cause, despite public incidents of them being openly racists, classist, and/or homophobic. The idea of intersectionality was not theorized until the 1970s, and for white, western feminists, the notion that gender, race, class, ability, etc. were inextricably tied together under the oppressive umbrella of patriarchal, colonial capitalism was unthinkable, and even today remains a concept difficult to grasp for some. Yes, these women provided great inspiration, great action, and won great rights for some of us, but it would be wrong to proclaim them heroes without further examining and critiquing their biases and prejudices if we are truly striving towards equality. For example, Germaine Greer raised a number of important and indeed revolutionary issues in ‘The Female Eunuch’ but is also notoriously transphobic. Betty Friedan, author of the 1963 keystone volume ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was openly homophobic as she dismissed lesbian concerns from the fight for gender equality, calling queer women a ‘lavender menace’. Suffrage in America is all too often dated to August 18th, 1920, but the rights of women of colour to vote in America is overlooked, and was not actionable until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. To claim these women and movements as fundamental and momentous is a slap in the face to the marginalized voices of the global feminist movement. That is not to say that they have not achieved important milestones in the global fight for equality, but to canonized them so is only enforcing the cultural imperialism of the global North-West, and is an act of subtle, insidious violence towards those who have been silenced in the fight for justice.

Mary Swanzy was a revolutionary artist; there is no doubt. But we must continue the process of deconstructing modes of power and structures of privilege within the feminist movement if we are to achieve our goal of equality at all. As uncomfortable as it might be, it is necessary in order to empower those who have been silenced.


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