23 December 2006 – 6 May 2007
Grace Crowley Sailors and models c. 1928 oil on canvas Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Gift of Grace Buckley in memory of Grace Crowley, 1980 more detail
In April 1926, soon after their arrival in France on their first trip overseas, Grace Crowley and her close friend Anne Dangar made a pilgrimage to Cézanne’s studio at Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne and the pursuit of modern art was the reason for Dangar’s going to France, and Crowley had followed her friend, intending to study at one of the more conservative art schools. The next four years in Paris were to change Crowley’s opinion of modern art. In 1930 she returned to Australia as a champion of modernism, establishing her own art school in Sydney and subsequently becoming one of the first Australian artists to paint purely abstract works.
Born in 1890 near Barraba in northern New South Wales into a well-off family of graziers there was nothing in her upbringing to have set Crowley upon a course of becoming an artist. She later wryly commented that her father ‘taught me what to look for in prize cattle but unlike Picasso’s father taught me nothing about art’. Crowley chose an unconventional path for herself, rejecting marriage in favour of an independent life as an artist. A complex personality, she was impeccably mannered and softly spoken yet her art was amongst the most radical of its time.
Crowley’s earliest training was at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, where she studied full-time between 1915 and 1918. She excelled as a student, becoming a favourite of Ashton’s and in 1918 succeeded Elioth Gruner as head teacher at the school. While the impact of modern art was felt increasingly in Sydney during the 1920s, Crowley remained aligned with the traditionalists, painting landscapes and rural scenes in a soft impressionistic manner. Her bucolic Ena and the turkeys of 1924 continues the sentimental genre of a bush childhood and was highly praised by the critics when first exhibited.
During the 1920s Paris was the undisputed centre of the art world and was to be the setting for Crowley’s wholehearted conversion to modern art. Cautious by nature, Crowley had taken some time to be convinced. Dangar recalled Crowley’s response to Modigliani: ‘A little Australian friend who has bravely tried to withstand the allurements of that unpopular, so called ‘modern art’ came and stood beside me. “When I first saw that picture,” she said “I thought, “this is not art – the artist is mad,” each time I see it I am more and more convinced this IS art – it is I who am mad’’.’
Grace Crowley 'Ena and the turkeys 1924 oil on canvas Private collection more detail
Early in 1927 Crowley enrolled at André Lhote’s Academy in the rue d’Odessa in the Latin Quarter. Lhote was one of the original cubists and his academy was considered one of the most advanced art schools in Paris, attracting many foreign students. Crowley flourished under Lhote’s instruction. Her work was transformed by his teaching as she applied his methods of simplifying form into geometric shapes and using the proportions of the golden mean in the composition. Sailors and models c. 1928 was the result of an ambitious exercise set by Lhote. Crowley recalled that for two weeks Lhote would pose models in the mornings from which the students made life drawings. These individual studies were then to be used as the basis for a multi-figure painting. Crowley’s Sailors and models has been constructed according to the geometry of the golden mean. Every figure is carefully placed along an internal axis, with the head of the standing sailor at the apex of a triangle. Lhote’s emphasis on pictorial construction was a revelation for Crowley: ‘For the first time I heard about dynamic symmetry and the section d’or – that it was necessary to make a PLAN for a painting of many figures as an architect does for a building and THEN construct your personages upon it.’
In Paris Crowley completed several elegant female portraits including Portrait of Lucie Beynis c.1929 and Portrait study 1929. Crowley’s exquisite draughtsmanship is evident in her Portrait of a woman c.1928, the work showing both her thorough academic training in anatomy and Lhote’s emphasis on geometry: the figure’s contours simplified into straight and curved lines, the torso contained within the upright of the chair’s back which divides the composition into a golden rectangle. Crowley studied with Lhote from 1927 until mid 1929, and in the summer of 1928 attended his landscape painting school in Mirmande in the south of France with Anne Dangar and fellow expatriate Dorrit Black. She travelled frequently – with Anne Dangar to England and Ireland in 1927 and to Italy in 1928 and with Dorrit Black to Holland and Belgium in 1929.
Grace Crowley Portrait study 1929 oil on canvas on composition board Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Bequest of Grace Crowley 1979 more detail
In 1929 Crowley contacted the leading cubist painter and theoretician Albert Gleizes asking for lessons which she intended to transmit back to Dangar, who was already back in Australia. While Crowley only had a few lessons with Gleizes his influence upon her was to prove profound. Crowley’s meeting with Gleizes was also the catalyst for Dangar to return to France where she became the mainstay of Gleizes’s artist colony at Moly-Sabata. The ensuing correspondence from Dangar to Crowley during the 1930s was a vital conduit, transmitting Gleizes’s theories to Crowley and later influencing the development of her art towards abstraction.
In 1930 Crowley reluctantly returned to Sydney. Her family, who had been providing her with a living allowance, had decided that it was time for her to take on some family responsibilities. On her return Crowley was one of the most experienced modernist artists in Australia. Her Portrait of Gwen Ridley 1930 is one of the first cubist paintings done in Australia and in 1932 she held a small solo exhibition of her paintings done in France. She recalled that her ‘ultra-modern’ works were considered to be very extraordinary and generally not understood. Crowley briefly taught at Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre before establishing the Crowley–Fizelle School at 215a George Street in Sydney with painter Rah Fizelle in late 1932. The school became a focal point for a small group of artists including Ralph Balson and Frank Hinder who painted together on the weekends and became increasingly interested in abstraction. One of Crowley’s key works of this time is her portrait of Ralph Balson, The artist and his model 1938. She has based the composition upon a series of overlapping rectangles and circles and flattened the forms into areas of pure colour and pattern, exploring the abstract rather than representational qualities of the work.
Grace Crowley The artist and his model 1938 oil on hardboard Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Gift of the artist 1975 more detail
In 1938, after the closure of the Crowley–Fizelle School, Crowley and Balson began painting together exclusively in her city studio. From this time onwards their work became ever closer stylistically and they began working towards creating purely abstract paintings. In this they were influenced by Gleizes, as well as by Mondrian’s theories and works which they knew of through publications.
By 1940 Crowley and Balson had begun painting totally abstract works. While both Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin had briefly produced abstract paintings based on ‘colour music’ theories as early as 1919, and artists such as Sam Ateyo had also experimented with abstraction in the 1930s, once Crowley and Balson had made the leap into abstraction, their commitment to abstract art remained absolute. In 1941 Balson held the first exhibition in Australia of abstract paintings, and the following year Crowley exhibited her first abstract work. While the earliest of Crowley’s geometric abstracts have been lost or were possibly destroyed by the artist, a small group of works from 1947 shows how far Crowley’s work had developed. These works are entirely constructed from the elements of form, line and colour without reference to representational elements. In Abstract painting 1947 Crowley creates the illusion of translucent planes of colour rotating around a central point, contrasting intense pinks and greens to create visual tension, the composition held together in a dynamic equilibrium with the linear elements creating a circular movement.
Grace Crowley Abstract painting 1947 oil on board, Private Collection, Sydney more detail
Throughout the 1940s Crowley’s and Balson’s avant-garde geometric abstracts were poorly received in an environment that strongly favoured the representational and narrative work of artists such as William Dobell. It was not until the 1950s, when Crowley was in her sixties, that a public gallery exhibited her abstract works. Yet Crowley’s geometric paintings from the early 1950s are arguably her finest achievement. They show her superb understanding of colour to create extraordinary lively and sophisticated abstract compositions. Abstract painting 1952 is one of her most ‘hard-edge’ geometric works, a series of overlapping rectangles in a shallow pictorial space jostling against each other, the forms appearing to be in continual movement yet anchored by the pink square at the front of the picture plane, and the dense black rectangle that lies behind. Crowley’s late abstracts can be seen as the climax of her long journey to realise a universal art based on the harmonious relationship of colour and form.
Crowley’s long artistic journey over five decades from painter of traditional landscapes to avant-garde abstracts was extraordinary. While Crowley is still best known for her cubist paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, Grace Crowley: being modern includes works that have never before been exhibited and reveals the full extent of Crowley’s contribution to Australian art.
Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture
A Children's Trail for Primary and Education Kit for Secondary students are available to be downloaded and printed for use during a visit to the exhibition.
For primary students
Children's trail (464KB PDF)
For secondary students
Education kit (388KB PDF)