Introduction to Marion Wallace-Dunlop
Posted by horasio on July 24, 2009
Painter, suffragette and the first modern woman to starve herself for politics
One hundred years ago this month, Marion Wallace-Dunlop (1864–1942) became the first modern hunger striker. She came to her prison cell as a militant suffragette, but also as a talented artist intent on challenging contemporary images of women. After she had fasted for ninety-one hours in London’s Holloway Prison, the Home Office ordered her unconditional release on July 8, 1909, as her health, already weak, began to fail. Her strike influenced those of Mohandas Gandhi, James Connolly and others who followed her example. Thousands of other strikes have moved the practice in new directions, but we should acknowledge its originator. Students and scholars of the women’s suffrage movement know Wallace-Dunlop’s name, some of her protests, and the main events of her life, but her art and writings are almost entirely unknown. Recently discovered works of hers reveal a mind that knew how images are read, how stories are made and publicity generated.
Along with the materials released in 2005 through the British Freedom of Information Act (2000), Wallace-Dunlop’s art and writings, along with her prints, sketches, letters and photos, provide a more complete genealogy of the hunger strike, and show a woman challenging the aesthetic and gender boundaries of her day. Her oil portrait of her sister Constance (“Miss C. W. D.”, 1892) portrays a woman with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, who sits erect, alarmed, with a tinge of fear, and stares disturbingly out at the viewer. Meeting and challenging our own gaze, her haunted stare makes us feel we have stumbled into a private space, the subject’s own. Wallace-Dunlop had a talent for creating such unsettling images, and the modern hunger strike, with its accompanying narrative of a prisoner starving him- or herself to death out of loyalty to a political principle, has something in common with this painting.