Australian Pioneers of Abstract Art: Grace Crowley

The use of abstraction in art is not meant to tell a story, but to encourage involvement and imagination. This most enduring of modern art form’s objective is to give the viewer an intangible, emotional experience, perceived completely differently by each individual, depending on their mood and personality. The groundbreaking movement away from realism began in the early 1900s and forms the foundation of today’s art world.

Interestingly, some of the world’s greatest practitioners of abstract art hailed from down under, with Australia providing fertile ground for advanced artistic expression. One of the pioneers of the Australian abstract movement was Grace Adela Williams Crowley, born in Barraba, New South Wales in May of 1890. Crowley spent her childhood drawing the world around her, especially people, cats, dogs, kookaburras, and other natural creatures. At the age of 13, her parents sent a pen and ink drawing she had done to New Idea magazine where it won a prize.

Crowley attended classes taught by Julian Ashton at The Sydney Art School, which is now the Julian Ashton Art School, which began her first formal education in the arts. Her artistic abilities blossomed under Ashton’s thoughtful tutelage. Crowley moved to France in 1925 where she studied at the Académie Colarossi and took private lessons with Beaux-arts portrait painter Louis Roger. She was enrolled at L’académie André Lhote under André Lhote from 1927 to 1929. Crowley travelled around Europe and then returned to Sydney in 1930.

Upon her return to Australia, Crowley was considered to be one of the nation’s most experienced Modernist artists with a sophisticated understanding of Cubism. After participating in a variety of art teaching ventures she became one of the first Australians to move into pure abstraction in the early 1940s. Crowley was a highly productive artist, exhibiting regularly from 1944 to 1954 with the Society of Artists and Contemporary Art Society. Crowley also joined a multitude of group exhibitions including Abstract Paintings Drawings Sculpture Constructions at David Jones Art Gallery in 1948, the Contemporary Art Society- Eleventh Annual Interstate Exhibition in 1949, and Abstract Compositions, at Macquarie Galleries in 1951.

After so much activity, Crowley produced only two known paintings between 1955 and 59, abandoning geometric forms in favour of gestural brushwork. In 1960 Crowley travelled to galleries in England, France and America. Always a pioneer, Crowley underwent another rapid change of style occurring during this period of travel, notably in Devon where she adopted the practice of pouring paint similar to the works of Jackson Pollock.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales held an exhibition in 1966 In honour of Crowley as one of the forerunners of the modern abstract movement.

Just before her 85th birthday in 1975, the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a retrospective of the then semi-retired Crowley, exhibiting 25 paintings and 12 drawings. The curator, Elena Taylor, stated “Crowley’s long artistic journey over five decades from painter of traditional landscapes to avant-garde abstracts was extraordinary.”

Crowley passed away in 1979 aged 89.