Grace Crowley, 1890–1979

L: Abstract painting 1952 – National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne – Bequest of the artist, 1981
R: Critically praised ‘Ena and the turkeys’, 1924 depicts the bush childhood of Grace’s niece Ena, also an MLC School Old Girl.

Grace Crowley, 1890–1979, was born in Barraba in northern NSW into a family of graziers and came to MLC School in 1906 for the final two years of her schooling. The July 1907 Excelsior contains Grace’s story of her home town entitled ‘The Barraba District’Grace is also mentioned in the January 1907 Excelsior – the ‘Prize List, 1906’ notes that Grace won the prize for ‘Drawing Freehand from Cast’.

Unconventional for the day, Grace rejected marriage in order to lead an independent life as an artist. Even though her manners were described as impeccable and she was very softly spoken, her art was amongst the most radical of its time.

Grace was a thinking woman and had studied with some of the best in Europe. On her return to Australia she began to explore the mathematics of geometry and the language of light, colour, space and form and taught concepts such as the golden section device as a means to create perfect compositions. 

Praised as one of Australia’s first non objective painters who painted purely abstract works, Grace was an early exponent of geometric abstraction in Australia, recalling that her ‘ultra-modern’ works were considered to be very extraordinary and generally not understood in this country. Her Abstract Constructivist-based paintings were, for the most part, unappreciated by Australians at that time and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the strength and vitality of her work was finally universally acknowledged. 

Her geometric paintings from the early 1950s are arguably her finest achievement. They show her superb understanding of colour, resulting in lively and sophisticated abstract compositions. The highlight of this work is ‘Abstract Painting 1952’, described as depicting “the beauty of colour and form.”

In ‘Abstract Painting 1952’ Crowley creates the illusion of transparency while using opaque colours, an incredibly difficult and complex thing to achieve. This is one of her most ‘hard-edge’ geometric works, described by the National Gallery of Australia as “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.”

We are proud to have this courageous and visionary artist as an MLC School Old Girl; her contribution to Australian art is inestimable.

Barbara Hoffman