Australian Cubism - Grace Crowley

Grace Crowley (1890 – 1979) like Dorrit Black was a key Australian modernist who went to study art in Europe, travelling with her friend Anne Dangar who wanted to learn from Cezanne. Even though Grace was intending to study more conservative art styles she became caught up in modernism and returned to Australia a convert and went on to become one of Australia’s first pure abstract artists. Here is one of her later works. Her story starts with Grace being born the daughter of a wealthy grazier in New South Wales who, according to Grace, taught me what to look for in prize cattle but unlike Picasso’s father taught me nothing about art. I did find one painting she did of Cow in a Field (1924) to prove she listened to her father.
This softly spoken, well mannered woman eventually produced paintings, the likes of which no one in Australia has ever seen. In art, Grace broke all the conventional rules of the time.

Grace Crowley studied with André Lhote (as did Dorrit Black as discussed in a previous Blog) and Grace became particularly interested in the theoretical principles of Cubism especially geometric abstraction, mastering the mathematics and becoming a teacher of the style back in Australia. I started to read about the theory of Cubism and I could say I don’t want to bore you but quite frankly I didn’t understand a word. So we will see what we can learn from the pictures! This is Ena and the Turkeys, an early Grace Crowley done in 1924 and illustrates her Impressionistic style which at first she clung to as others around her evolved into modernists. All artists change their style as they develop new ideas, new learnings and new perceptions of the world. I love to look retrospectively at the works of the great painters and try to imagine the struggles they endured to achieve the height of creativity.

Its important when we are painting (photographing etc) to analyse our own strengths and weaknesses and then to decide on a couple of aspects to improve. At the moment I’m working on my palette which is too diverse. I’m trying to limit the number of colours I use and to be more aware of the relationship between colours.

A couple of years after arriving in France Grace Crowley’s paintings were looking like this Portrait Study (1929)
And by 1947 like this Abstract Painting.

Grace Crowley started her training at the Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, eventually becoming head teacher. When Grace and her friend Anne Dangar first arrived in Europe in the late 1920s they encountered the works of artists who would change the face of creativity for ever. When Anne Dangar and Grace saw a Modigliani for the first time,
Anne recalls Grace’s response as: 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’’.

Under the tutelage of André Lhote Grace gradually changed her style. This is Sailors and Models (1928) which was achieved using the geometry of the golden mean. My two subscribers with architectural backgrounds will understand this no doubt. In layman's terms you can see in the painting the triangle with a sailor at the apex.

And Crowley perceived her learning thus: 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.

Look back to the Portrait Study above and you can see Grace's growing understanding of geometry emerging into simplified straight and curved lines, each triangle, rectangle in perfect harmony.

In 1929 Crowley managed to have a few lessons with Albert Gleizes (we met him earlier) and this contact established a three way transference of information between, Crowley, Gleizes and Anne Dangar who eventually joined Gleize's art colony. More on her in the next Blog. It was Gleize's influence that opened up the world of abstraction to Grace Crowley.

Grace Crowley is credited with having produced one of the first cubist paintings in Australia - Portrait of Gwen Ridley done in 1930.
In 1932 she established the Crowley–Fizelle School in Sydney with Rah Fizelle which sadly only lasted a very short time. It did however become a centre for artists interested in Abstract Art including Ralph Balson who appears in Grace's painting The Artist and his Model in 1938 which shows her moving even closer to an abstract style.
Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson evolved into pure abstract artists as seen above in the first image I showed you. Of course, the public were not impressed but she remains one of our greats. Personally I think her earlier abstract works more appealing than the later ones, represented here, done in 1960.
Whatever your opinion her artistic journey of Grace Crowley was remarkable.

The answer to yesterday's art test is: The building in the far right lower corner is wrong as it's floor plan would encroach into the building next door. In other words the perspective is all wrong. It's fine to alter perspective, abstract artists do it all the time as we have seen. But it must be a deliberate act, not accidentally as I have done. and you can't have one building out of perspective and the others not. In fact the more I look at this painting the more errors I can see!!! Oh well, back to the drawing board. I will fix it up and show you.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on anewman@netspace.net.au or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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