Grace Crowley
being modern

23 December 2006 – 6 May 2007

Introduction | Conservation | Crowley works in the National Gallery collection

Essay 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


Grace Crowley 'Portrait of Gwen Ridley' 1930, oil on canvas on board, Art Gallery of South Australia, Purchased 1995, South Australian Government Grant Grace Crowley 'Portrait of Gwen Ridley' 1930, oil on canvas on board, Art Gallery of South Australia, Purchased 1995, South Australian Government Grant enlarge

Sydney modernist
experimentation with the figure

Crowley’s homecoming was not a happy time and she later recalled that ‘I wished I was dead’.1 After the stimulation and freedom of Paris, the return to familial obligations and the provincialism of Sydney was stifling.

Crowley and Dangar were briefly reunited in Sydney before Dangar’s return to France.It was the last time the two friends would see each other.After a short stay in Sydney, Crowley returned to Glen Riddle to take up the role of dutiful daughter, one that did not come naturally to her.Crowley was clearly frustrated and bored, as Dangar wrote, ‘of having to sit with her mother hours and days and weeks and months merely listening to her mother’s visitors talking about babies and engagements and weddings and jam recipes’.2

Crowley was out of step with her deeply conservative family.Her niece remembers that when Crowley came back she shocked the family with her ‘red fingernails, red lipstick and red ideas’.3 Crowley’s family did not understand or like the change in her art and considered that her painting had been ‘ruined’ in Paris.According to her nephew, Crowley responded by burning many of the early works that she had left at Glen Riddle.4 Many years later Crowley wrote that ‘Grace’s things’, not valued by her family, were simply lost.5 This is echoed in the story she told to Daniel Thomas that, on her return, she found her easel thrown upon a rubbish tip.6 Either circumstance explains the scarcity of Crowley’s early Ashton-period works.

There was one bright light at Glen Riddle.Crowley’s distant cousin Gwen Ridley shared her artistic interests and had studied at the Sydney Art School in the 1920s.Following on from the portraits that she had done in France, Crowley undertook a portrait of Gwen, the first major work she completed back in Australia.As in Portrait study, Crowley used the device of the round-backed chair and a similar pose for the sitter.However, unlike the dramatic diagonals of Portrait study and elegant pose of Portrait of Lucie Beynis, the more static geometry of Portrait of Gwen Ridley 1930 gives a sense of solidity and monumentality.The formal pose and arching rhythms of the composition strongly recall early Renaissance images of the Madonna enthroned, and Crowley’s reference to such works may have come from Gleizes’s interest in religious imagery.Certainly the impact of his compositional principles can be seen in the rhythmic repetition and contrast of rectangular and circular shapes that echo the exercises in translation and rotation that she had done with Gleizes.

Fortunately for Crowley, her stay at Glen Riddle was not long.While there had been talk about Crowley supporting herself by teaching art at a boarding school in Toowoomba, in a letter Dangar subsequently refers to ‘Daddy’s gift’ – presumably an amount of money that allowed Crowley to return to Sydney permanently in early 1932.7 To Crowley the Sydney art scene was very tame after Paris.She recalled that ‘things seemed rather dull in the art world – I just couldn’t understand why they hadn’t moved artistically in the four years I had been abroad.And of course my paintings were considered very extraordinary’.8

Crowley felt that her ‘ultramodern’ work was not appreciated or understood and later recounted that she ‘was shouldered off as one of those degenerate modernists’.9 Yet she still had opportunities to exhibit.Almost immediately after her return she participated in the A group of seven exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in March 1930, showing four of her French paintings including Mirmande and Girl with goats.Other exhibitors in this important modernist exhibition included Cossington Smith, de Maistre, Wakelin and Black.This was the first showing of Crowley’s new works, and the reception, while not hostile, was nevertheless unenthusiastic, with the critic for The Guardian commenting, ‘Miss Grace Crowley and Miss Dorrit Black have got out of their Sydney Art School rut.But we are not quite sure that we are not travelling in a French furrow.And why render subjects fundamentally definitive and strong in a laboriously indefinite colour?’10

Soon after her arrival in Sydney in March 1932 Crowley joined forces with Black at her recently established Modern Art Centre in Margaret Street, teaching the life-drawing class.Black had established the Modern Art Centre the year before as an alternative to what she considered the conservative British-derived post-impressionism that prevailed in Sydney at that time.Instead, her intention was that the Modern Art Centre would show the work of others who ‘have gone further and in a direction that is at present less generally understood.These painters have drawn their inspiration chiefly from the French school’.11

Crowley held her first solo exhibition at the Modern Art Centre, in June or July 1932, showing about eight works from France including Mirmande, Girl with goats and Portrait of Lucie Beynis.She was, however, disappointed with the response to the exhibition – it was not reviewed and only ‘1/2 dozen people saw it – these were people who had been at the Sydney Art School and some were working at Smith and Julius and those were the ones that were interested’.12

Throughout the 1930s Crowley and Dangar – who was now firmly ensconced at Moly-Sabata, having turned her creative energies towards realising Gleizes’s teachings in her practice as a potter – frequently wrote to each other about the art world, the development of their own work and, from Dangar’s side, transmitting the ideas of Gleizes to a receptive Crowley.She also continued to send journals and books, including copies of the journal of Abstraction–création: art non-figuratif, while for her part Crowley sent her friend money.While initially they often discussed Crowley’s return to France, and even canvassed the possibility of Crowley joining the commune at Moly-Sabata (and later of Dangar returning to Australia), neither plan eventuated.13 However, Crowley’s correspondence with Dangar kept her focus firmly on France and in the face of the generally unenthusiastic reception of her work, Dangar was an invaluable ally, confirming her opinion of the provincialism of Australian art.Dangar’s response to the 1931 annual issue of TheHome magazine was typical:

I opened it & turned the pages [and] saw there were beautiful photographs but the most terrible, terrible, shameful evidence of the vulgarity & baseness of the type of creature daring to call himself a painter out there.I felt choked and ill as I cut out all those coloured reproductions & the cover & put them in the fire.14

Grace Crowley ' Ena and the turkeys' 1924 oil on canvas Private collection Grace Crowley 'The artist and his model' 1938 oil on hardboard Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Gift of the artist 1975 enlarge

Significantly, through Dangar, Crowley was able to maintain a connection to Gleizes.As early as June 1930 Dangar wrote to Crowley that she was sending over a set of gouache studies and advising her to do exercises that she should return for correction by Pouyaud.15 Again, in late 1934, Dangar sent over exercises for Crowley and her students and this time Gleizes himself would supervise and make comments.16

In February 1931 Crowley’s Portrait of Gwen Ridley was hung in the Archibald Prize, and brought about her reacquaintance with Fizelle.According to Crowley, Fizelle, who had recently returned from Europe, saw the portrait and admired it very much and ‘[our] mutual misery concerning ART? in Australia drew us together’.17 Fizelle (known as ‘Fiz’) had recently returned from several years in Europe where he had studied in London and travelled extensively through Spain, Italy and France.Crowley and Fizelle had known each other in Sydney in the 1920s, and had met twice briefly in Paris and London.Throughout 1932 they painted together at the evening Sketch Club at the Modern Art Centre and while Fizelle’s European work employed a geometric simplification and ordering of form, he did not have the same depth of knowledge of cubism as Crowley, who later recalled that ‘[Fizelle] would ply her with questions re Lhote’s teaching, and seemed to regret missing the opportunity to attend his classes’.18Fizelle’s art was certainly strongly influenced by Crowley during their association, his work using a similar manner of geometric reduction of forms.Yet it does not seem that Crowley’s work responded to Fizelle’s.

One of Crowley’s few major paintings from this period is the 1933 Portrait in grey.19 This work is more abstracted than any of her earlier portraits.Foreground and background have been merged into a tightly compressed space that is articulated through intersecting planes of graduated colour, resembling the fragmentation and faceting of space in analytic cubism.The contours of the figure are minimally indicated by definite straight and curved lines, while the face is the only part of the work to receive a more naturalistic treatment.

Towards the end of 1932, for reasons unknown, Crowley ended her association with the Modern Art Centre.Dangar says of Crowley and Black’s acrimonious parting

it’s just staggering after all you did for that studio! I’m astonished.I know Dorrit chokes me, but I thought you had real affection for her and that I was wrong & perhaps unconsciously spiteful & jealous & that was why I didn’t get on with her … I will send you everything I get hold of, mighty little I know, but all the same I do keep in touch with the movement a wee bit … I am sure you will get on a great deal better with only Fizelle.20

Crowley and Fizelle decided to find a studio together and start their own school.By late 1932 they had found a suitable space at 215a George Street and launched the Crowley–Fizelle School.The front room was used as the studio for teaching, while Fizelle lived in a separate room at the rear.Either in 1933 or 1934, Crowley moved into the rooftop apartment at 227 George Street (known as ‘The 84 Steps’) in the same city block as the Crowley–Fizelle School.Guests frequently came and went between the two locations, and Fizelle kept his cactus plants on Crowley’s rooftop yard.Many of their students were drawn from the now defunct Modern Art Centre or were friends from the Sydney Art School.Among these was Mary Alice Evatt, wife of the Labor politician HV ‘Doc’ Evatt, who was to become a lifelong friend and supporter of Crowley’s work.Dangar continued to send information about Gleizes’s teaching, as well as copies of the latest art books and journals, and Mary Alice Evatt later wrote that Dangar ‘continued to tell of the abstract work of Albert Gleizes and of the tapestries and pots made at Moly-Sabata.This was a great help to students here and helped to bring Sydney and the little group in lower George Street into the stream of creative work being done in Europe.’21

Of their teaching Crowley wrote: ‘We were united in one belief, the constructive approach to painting and this insistence of the abstract elements in building a design was the keynote of our teaching with both Lhote and Gleizes.’22 While Fizelle was much more interested in dynamic symmetry, and was responsible for teaching it at the school, Crowley taught according to Lhote’s methods, advising her students to ‘dissociate [yourselves] from the sentimental interest of individual figures and think of the great geometrical plan’.23
In her lectures, she would analyse the compositions of the great artists of the past, such as Vermeer and Mantegna, and contrast these with contemporary works by Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen, which she considered lacking in organisation, weak and sentimental.24

In retrospect, the Crowley–Fizelle School was significant not so much as a teaching institution, but as a locus for modernism in Sydney.It brought together a group of like-minded artists who developed their work in a direction influenced by their studies of contemporary European abstraction and Crowley was the hub around which the group revolved.In 1932 through the evening Sketch Club at the Modern Art Centre, Crowley had become reacquainted with Ralph Balson, a former student of hers and Dangar’s at the Sydney Art School.He had assisted Crowley and Fizelle to paint their premises at George Street, and from about 1934 he began to regularly paint on the weekends with Crowley and Fizelle at their studio.This group was joined by Frank Hinder on his return from study in America and occasionally his American wife, the sculptor Margel Hinder.Frank Hinder had studied at the Chicago Art Institute and in New York with Emil Bisttram, who taught the principles of dynamic symmetry developed by Jay Hambidge.Hinder had already experimented with abstraction and Crowley recalled that ‘their arrival fresh from modern schools in New York and Chicago brought a special stimulus to the nucleus of interest in abstract art which was eventually to develop’.25 The group was firmly focused on the latest developments overseas and they largely distanced themselves from the mainstream of the Sydney art world, which in turn mostly ignored them.

Judging from the few remaining paintings from this time, the mid 1930s was not a prolific period for Crowley.It is possible that the relationship with Fizelle and her teaching at the Crowley–Fizelle School took up much of her time, or that works have been lost or destroyed.She continued to show her paintings from France well into 1934, but rarely exhibited in Sydney between 1935 and 1938, although she did so in 1934, 1935 and 1937 with the Contemporary Art Group in Melbourne.

Grace Crowley 'Horses by a pond' c.1932, pencil, coloured crayons and wash, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Gift of Grace Buckley 1982 Grace Crowley  'Horses by a pond'  c.1932, pencil, coloured crayons and wash, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Gift of Grace Buckley 1982 enlarge

The most significant known works dating from the mid 1930s are the many drawings of country life made during her visits back to Glen Riddle, although apparently none of these compositional studies were developed into paintings.These generally light-hearted works evidence her deep affection for the country and are a return to her earliest subject matter.
In these drawings Crowley has turned the lens of her Parisian training to quintessentially Australian motifs.Her large compositional drawing Horses by a pond c.1932 has a direct antecedent in her Study for Sailors and models c.1928.The work is similarly ruled up according to the golden mean, yet this time instead of the typically French theme of sailors and nudes, there are draughthorses, gum trees and windmills.In other versions of this work, Crowley has substituted cows for horses – another example of how, following Lhote’s teaching, Crowley felt free to rearrange the elements in her painting to create a harmonious composition.There are also numerous drawings of Crowley’s nephew, Clement (Clemmie) Smith, including Boy and his dog c.1932 (AGNSW).In several versions, such as Boy and his dog c.1932 (NGA), Crowley has reversed the image by transferring it to tracing paper and then ‘flipping’ it over.

Another major composition Shearing shed c.1932is important, for here Crowley enters territory that in art, as in life, had been regarded as the preserve of men.As a young woman at Glen Riddle she had longed to draw the men shearing but her father had not allowed her to work in the shearing shed.Such nationalistic subject matter was predominately the domain of male artists.In broad terms, during the late 1920s and the 1930s, female artists gravitated towards modernism, while male artists continued to depict Australian landscapes and nationalistic themes in a more traditional manner.Crowley’s depiction of the shearing shed is significant in this context because it represents a challenge to these orthodoxies and creates a contemporary modernist version of the national self-image.It is possible that Crowley was motivated to do so to gain wider acceptance for her art or, like Margaret Preston, was consciously attempting to create a distinctively Australian modernism.While she exhibited two paintings on nationalistic themes in the late 1930s, including her Sesquicentenary Prize entry The gold rush 1851–54 1938, these works are nevertheless an aberration from the direction that Crowley’s work was taking through her association with Balson and Hinder.

The year 1938 brought about a major change in Crowley’s life and began a period of intense experimentation in her art.Between 1938 and 1939 Crowley produced an extraordinary group of paintings in which she explored ever-increasing degrees of abstraction.Crowley’s relationship with Fizelle had been under strain for some time and in late 1937 they closed the school.26 The following year their relationship ended for reasons unknown, although Fizelle, who had been wounded in the First World War, was known to suffer from symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress.Crowley had little to do with Fizelle from this time on and tensions arose between Fizelle and Balson.While Fizelle remained at 215a George Street, Crowley set up a studio at her apartment at 227 George Street.Balson, and for a short time Hinder, continued painting with Crowley on the weekends.The work of Crowley and Balson became closer stylistically and Crowley recorded that she and Balson ‘first began our efforts in abstract painting’.27 Their increasing closeness from 1938 on a personal level is indicated by the portraits they made of each other that year.Balson’s gentle Portrait of Grace Crowley 1939 depicts her as slightly remote and introspective, as though absorbed in her painting.

Crowley’s portrait of Balson, The artist and his model 1938, is one of her most important paintings from this seminal 1938–39 period.She painted Balson as she saw him at his painting: from behind, standing at his easel in front of a model on her rooftop garden.Balson’s sprightly pose, and the purity of the colours laid next to each other with the white of the canvas showing through, give the work a joyous spontaneity and freshness.Crowley later said that she was ‘making an exaggeration really of what Lhote had taught me about … not isolating the figures against the foreground, bringing the colours of the background into the figure and the colours of the figure into the background’.28 However, Lhote is no longer the main source of this work.While she employed the geometry of the golden mean – Balson’s canvas is a golden rectangle – it was subjected to Gleizes’s principles of translation and rotation.However, the most radical change is her treatment of form into flat areas of colour or pattern, rather than the volumetric modelling she had learnt from Lhote.While Crowley never specifically acknowledged Henri Matisse as an influence, the high-key palette and decorative treatment of The artist and his model indicate that Crowley had looked carefully at his work.In Paris, one of Matisse’s early masterpieces, The piano lesson 1916, had left an indelible impression upon her: ‘I remember standing gazing like Alice in Wonderland, glued in front of Bernheim-Jeune’s window in Paris, intoxicated with sheer delight at that great sheet of emerald green contrasted with a huge slab of wicked stinging pink … It was my conversion to l’Art Moderne of that time!’29

Grace Crowley 'Woman (Annunciation)' c.1939, oil on canvas on composition board, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Purchased 1972 Grace Crowley  'Woman (Annunciation)' c.1939, oil on canvas on composition board, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Purchased 1972 enlarge

Since 1937 Crowley, Balson, Hinder, Fizelle and Eleonore Lange – a German-born sculptor and academic who had lectured regularly on modern art at the Crowley–Fizelle School – together with several other artists associated with the sketch club at
227 George Street, had begun planning an exhibition to show the abstract direction of their work.In addition to the core group, Frank Medworth and sculptors Margel Hinder, Lyndon Dadswell and Gerald Lewers participated in Exhibition 1: paintings and sculptures, which was opened by HV Evatt at the David Jones’ Art Gallery in August 1939.

Intended as the first of a series of exhibitions, each of which would address a different aspect of what was referred to as ‘the central problem of modern art’, Lange’s catalogue foreword, a manifesto for the group, stated that the direction of art was towards the abstract.In painting, composition was based on ‘colour laws, instead of linear or atmospheric perspective’ and Lange considered that ‘Henri Matisse, was the first to offer a new system of order, e.g., composition, in replacing the vanishing point by the pictorial plane.’ She went on to state that ‘the painter today uses a scene or a posing model only to elaborate its inherent colour-sensations into an artistic theme of colour relations; the endeavor to arrange these special values into an ordered whole is the subject of a modern picture.’30

Crowley showed five works, including The artist and his model and Woman (Annunciation) c.1939, and Balson showed seven works, including his Portrait of Grace Crowley.In Woman(Annunciation) Crowley pushed her work further towards abstraction than ever before without losing the figure.She sacrificed anatomical correctness for the sake of the overall composition, elongating the arm of the figure – something she had never done before.However, the work is still close to her portraits of women from the late 1920s and early 1930s, and she similarly used the back of the chair to frame the subject and based the composition on strong diagonal and vertical forms.

As in The artist and his model, colour is no longer used primarily to describe form, rather it has become a semi-autonomous element within the work.Crowley emphasises the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, and in Woman (Annunciation) created her most abstracted composition to date.

Unfortunately, Exhibition 1 was poorly received, with Howard Ashton, the conservative critic for the Daily Telegraph, writing that ‘their sterility is apparent in the conventionalism of all colour, design and form, a quality which would excuse some under the heading of applied art’.31 The hopes of the group to continue with the planned exhibitions was not realised – the commencement of the Second World War and the formation of the Contemporary Art Society in Sydney (of which Fizelle became the first president), as well as personal tension between Fizelle, Balson and Crowley, dissipating the group’s energies.Not discouraged, Crowley and Balson retreated to her studio to begin working towards an even more radical series of paintings.

1 Grace Crowley, transcript of interview with James Gleeson, 1979, NGA Research Library, transcript, p.14.

2 Dangar, 24 June 1930, in Topliss, p.40.

3 Her niece recalls that after Crowley’s return from Paris her political views were left and that for the rest of her life she voted Labor.This is also borne out by her strong friendship with Mary Alice Evatt and her husband, Labor politician ‘Doc’ Evatt, in Job, p.22.

4 Elena Taylor, conversation with Brian Smith, 9 May 2006.

5 Grace Crowley, draft of letter to Mary Eagle, 1977, AGNSW Research Library and Archive.

6 Daniel Thomas, ‘Crowley, Grace Adela Williams (1890–1979), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.13, Melbourne University Press, 1993, pp.539–40.

7 Dangar, undated correspondence, c.January 1931, in Topliss, p.48.

8 Grace Crowley, Grace Crowley, Archival art series, Smart Films, Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1975.

9 Grace Crowley, draft letter to Candace Bruce, 19 March 1978, AGNSW Research Library and Archive.

10 Colin Simpson, ‘Six painters and a sculptor’, Daily Guardian, 27 March 1930, p.13.

11 Dorrit Black, ‘Miss Black’s speech at the opening of the Modern Group, in North, p.143.

12 Grace Crowley, Grace Crowley, Archival art series, Smart Films, Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1975.

13 Dangar wrote that she had discussed with Madame Gleizes Crowley joining the community and that Crowley had offered to learn weaving: ‘help me with my share of the garden but naturally you didn’t want to learn agriculture and fruit tree pruning etc.’, 21 March 1932, in Topliss, p.73.

14 Dangar, 26 December 1934, in Topliss, p.131.

15 Dangar, 24 June 1930, in Topliss, p.41.

16 Dangar, 29 January 1935, in Topliss, p.133.

17 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

18 Grace Crowley, draft of letter to James Gleeson, 19 March 1978, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

19 Dangar, 4 September and 1 December 1932, in Topliss, pp.86, 97.In late 1932 Dangar mentions that Crowley and Fizelle were both working on portraits of Ellen Gray, a student at the Modern Art Centre who later married the son of the painter Antonio Salvatore Datillo Rubbo.Fizelle’s portrait of Ellen Gray was hung in the 1932 Archibald Prize (held in January 1933), and it is likely that Crowley also submitted her portrait, although it was not selected.Crowley’s titling of this work, Portrait in grey, and choice of a predominately blue-grey palette, is likely to be a reference to the sitter’s surname, and may also have served to distinguish it from Fizelle’s portrait.

20 Dangar, 2 January 1933, in Topliss, p.65.This letter is in fact dated 2 January 1932; however, the events it described occurred at the end of 1932.It is probable that Dangar simply inscribed the wrong year on her letter – a common error at the beginning of a new year.

21 Mary Alice Evatt, ‘The Crowley–Fizelle Art School’, Quarterly, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, October 1966, p.314.

22 Grace Crowley, quoted in Renée Free, Balson Crowley Fizelle Hinder, Sydney: AGNSW, 1966, p.6.

23 Grace Crowley, undated lectures notes, c.1936, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

24 Grace Crowley, undated lectures notes, c.1936, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

25 Grace Crowley, responses to questions by Renée Free, 1966, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

26 Already in 1936 Dangar had written: ‘Your letter surprised me, had it come three years ago it would not have, I expected it, but you were so loyal to Fizelle always I thought I had completely misjudged him in thinking him superficial.Dorrit [said] when she was here “Fizelle is too superficial for Smudge, he is after her and that flatters her but she can’t rest satisfied with such a scatterbrained companion” … Don’t let go your school, you are needed there darling.’ 13 April 1936, in Topliss, p.146.

27 Grace Crowley, draft letter to Peter Pinson, 1979, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

28 Grace Crowley, Grace Crowley, Archival art series, Smart Films, Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1975.

29 Grace Crowley, draft letter to Daniel Thomas, 23 May 1967, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

30 Eleonore Lange, ’Foreword, Exhibition 1: paintings and sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Sydney: David Jones’ Gallery, August 1939.

31 Lange, 1939.