A fashionable revolutionary

markiewieczAn exhibition about the Easter 1916 rising at the Photographers’ Gallery includes two photos of Countess Markievicz, placed side by side in the same frame, though they were clearly shot at different times.

The one shows a gracious lady elegantly dressed in a long gown and posing with a classical vase.

In the other, she is dressed in a military style uniform, with feathers in her hat, holding a revolver with an improbably long barrel. (This isn’t a Mauser C96, as you might expect, since these were used by the rebels, or a British issue Webley. Perhaps it was a Colt SAA which she may have owned privately. Whilst possibly more accurate than short barrelled equivalents, this would be more difficult to conceal.)

She is leaning forward in a posture that would not please any shooting instructor I’ve ever had. Revolutionary ardour perhaps, but a double tap is unlikely.

Countess_Markievicz_wikipediaWikipedia shows another pose, presumably from the same photoshoot, in which she crouches behind a ‘barricade’ made from an obvious studio prop, looking anxiously at the same revolver as if wondering how it works. Can you imagine a serious revolutionary like Michael Collins having himself photographed like this? (As Wikipedia says, “He had kept his public visibility to a minimum during the conduct of the war; up to ..[1921].. the British still had very few reliable photographs of him.”)

When the Easter Rising came, a decision was taken to fortify St Stephens Green, and she fought there. This decision has been criticised as tactically poor: although trenches were dug, the Green is overlooked on all sides by tall buildings. It is also strategically odd, since it is hardly a key target to hold. Revolutionary theory would suggest taking over railway stations, post offices, telegraph stations, and so on. This was not Markievicz’s decision of course; but like the gun and the posing, it doesn’t suggest military efficiency.

An article by Lauren Arrington argues that Markievicz probably shot an unarmed Irish policeman who was ‘walking down the path from Harcourt Street’, though she may have thought she had only shot him in the arm, when actually she had mortally wounded him in the lung. This is an ongoing controversy. Arrington implies that Markievicz was judged more harshly for this action than others who took lives, because (a) she was not executed (because she was a woman) and (b) she was a woman – ‘such a specimen of womanhood’.

I don’t think any individual can really be blamed for shooting someone at that moment – everyone was shooting everyone else – but the posing for the camera beforehand worries me. You get the feeling that she posed for both the ‘feminine’ and the ‘feminist’ photos in exactly the same spirit. As Yeats put it in his poem,

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer’s wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams –
Some vague Utopia – and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.

(‘The older’ was Markievicz.)

You can of course read this as a masculine preference for women to keep out of politics and to hang around in silk kimonos looking like gazelles, but I think it is more about the corruption brought about by ideology – as Yeats goes on to say:

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;

or as he writes of another Irish heroine, Maud Gonne, in ‘On a Political Prisoner’:

She that but little patience knew,
From childhood on, had now so much
A grey gull lost its fear and flew
Down to her cell and there alit,
And there endured her fingers’ touch
And from her fingers ate its bit.

Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?

Yeats, I think, is suggesting that ideology overcomes all humanity.

The paired photographs echo this, and whoever put them in the same frame may have shared my unease. The simulation has become a simulacrum: it has no reference to any actual reality. Clearly, no attempt has been made to make the ‘barricade’ realistic, for example. Neither photographer nor model cared about this, or about the romantic painted backdrop. In just the same way, you might argue that the ‘feminine’ pose is a simulacrum of an image of ‘femininity’ that does not reflect reality. The chair, the Greek vase, look like studio props.

These are constructed personae; they are artefacts designed to assert, firstly, that she has wealth and status, and secondly that she deserves this wealth and status because she is (a) a refined lady and (b) courageous and has a social conscience. Upmarket advertising, in fact.

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