Mary Kenny: Thoroughly modern Mainie

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Mary Kenny: Thoroughly modern Mainie

In feminist theory, the “male gaze” has for too long dominated art and visual images. So, each week for the month of August, Mary Kenny offers the “female gaze” of four exceptional women artists, and what their vision brings to artistic perception…


The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

Visitors to Dublin viewing its famed Georgian architecture may spot a plaque at 36 Fitzwilliam Square proclaiming that ‘Mainie Jellett – 1897-1944 – Painter – lived and worked here’. Dublin Tourism’s tribute could have added that Mainie (born Mary Harriett) Jellett virtually introduced modern art to Ireland, with her creative Cubist style.

She was initially pilloried for her stunningly original paintings and designs – not least by the influential nationalist George Russell, ‘AE’, who called her work “some sub-section of this artistic malaria”. But she eventually won over not only De Valera’s conservative government – the State commissioned her, in the 1930s, to represent the Irish pavilion at an international fair – but the Catholic and Anglican churches, who came to see the spirituality in her work, and appreciate the new energy she brought to the classic Christian themes illuminated by Fra Angelico, Giotto and Botticelli (three Old Masters she particularly revered.)

Mainie grew up in Fitzwilliam Square as the eldest daughter in a family that had many associations with Trinity College Dublin: her grandfather, John Hewitt Jellett, had been a mathematician, clergyman and Provost of TCD, and her aunt, Eva Josephine Jellett, was the first woman medical graduate of TCD in 1905.

It was a contented childhood – her parents were happily married and her father, William, thought the world of Mainie. Yet in a political sense, it was a household doomed: William was a Southern Unionist and remained a Westminster Unionist MP until 1919. He was vehemently against Ireland’s break with the Crown – many Southern Unionists felt abandoned and betrayed.

Her mother, Janet, an accomplished musician, was not quite so hostile to the new Irish State – a remote ancestor of hers had been a Wolfe Tone United Irishman. This was a time of strained loyalties for Mainie’s family and class, and she found an escape through art. She had shown early talent as an artist and, educated by governesses, she also had tuition from renowned women artists of the time – Elizabeth Yeats, Sarah Harrison and Mary Manning. At the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, which she attended aged 17, she studied under William Orpen. Then, in 1917, as the rise of Sinn Féin began to emerge more emphatically, she made her way to London where she enrolled in the Westminster School of Art. Here, Mainie came under the tutelage of Walter Sickert, who, as painter and print-maker, was a leader of the British avant-garde movement. In Sickert’s studio, she also met Evie Hone, who became, alongside Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most distinguished artist in stained glass. Mainie’s friendship with Evie was to be a loving, life-long relationship, only briefly punctured when Evie entered an Anglican convent for a year.

Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone are also inextricably linked together as Irish artists – both pioneers of new art forms in their time – and they influenced one another in their work.

Today, it would be asked whether their close friendship and artistic connection was a gay relationship. Bruce Arnold, who wrote the definitive biography of Mainie Jellett, and has many letters between Evie and Mainie, thinks that it was probably platonic; there is nothing in the letters to indicate otherwise. But we may also ask: does it matter? That they loved one another is evident – although, Bruce notes that Mainie was always the more dominant partner.

Evie, who was three years older, had polio as a child and she was sometimes a semi-invalid yet, as is the way of things, she outlived Mainie by 11 years.

The women studied together in London, and again in Paris, after Mainie won the Taylor Scholarship. They both worked at André L’Hote’s studio, where Mainie became more involved with abstract art and the concept of form. “I learned to use natural forms as a starting point towards the creation of form for its own sake.” But there was also a geometric element of Cubism which Mainie saw as echoing the Old Masters, where an invisible triangular design is part of the pattern of the picture.

Both Jellett and Hone also worked under Albert Gleizes. Picasso and Braque are said to have founded the ‘fragmented and abstract’ principles of Cubism, but art historians see the philosopher Gleizes as the true founding father of the movement. He was a formative teacher for Mainie Jellett – though, for Evie, Georges Rouault was also a key figure.

Mainie returned to Ireland in the 1920s, when the turbulent warring period was over. Art mattered to her more than politics and she accepted the new Irish State, although she expressed some strong views about De Valera, and described him as “criminally conceited and stupid” in his economic protectionism.

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Yet her own values weren’t always entirely different from some of Dev’s. In the 1920s she saw art as being “against the materialism and mechanical spirit of our time” and “the movement and agitation” of modern life. She loved the austerity of early Irish Christian art and, like Dev’s constitutional “woman in the home”, she valued the role of “the householder”.

For Jellett, the “householder” creates taste and, as Eileen MacCarvill wrote in The Artist’s Vision, the elements of life and art are “in the collective life of the home”; craft and manufacture, taste and design, colour and form are all art. Mainie also wanted to apply the aesthetics to civil life – to town planning, architectural design, textiles, murals, shop signs, interior decoration. Mainie’s Cubist shapes and colours were also applied to some beautiful rugs and carpets, and she produced fine theatre designs for the Gate Theatre and for Irish Ballet.

At first, Mainie Jellett’s modernist paintings created a shocked sensation, which only made her more resolved to “educate” the public and the critics about being open to art. She exhibited successfully at the Royal Hibernian Academy and, elsewhere, gave lectures and talks, travelled to many parts of Europe, and was always helpful to other women in the world of art.

“She was definitely a feminist,” says Bruce Arnold. She was also, in a practical, if not in flag-waving, sense, patriotic: she wanted Ireland to thrive, both in the arts and in prosperity (one of her grumbles about Dev was his negative effect on “trade”).

Evie Hone felt she had derived a sense of “peace” from her year in a convent and converted to Catholicism in 1937, but Mainie remained committed to the Church of Ireland, often attending the High Anglican church at Clyde Road. “Her deep spirituality manifested itself in her artistic treatment of sacred subjects,” wrote Diarmaid Ferriter, adding “both she and Hone made Paris-oriented modernism respectable even for the Church.”

Mainie Jellett completed her last painting in 1943, but she was unwell and died soon afterwards, aged 46, from pancreatic cancer. Elizabeth Bowen saw her a few months before her death in a Leeson Street nursing home. “The eager, generous girl of my first memories was now a thin woman, in whom the fatigue of illness, mingling with that unlost generosity and eagerness, translated itself into a beauty I cannot forget.”

Mainie Jellett’s paintings are landmarks in Irish art and it can be said that her philosophy of bringing art into everyday life has been remarkably successful.

@MaryKenny4

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