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Ray Austin CROOKE (b.1922; d.2015)

Photo of Artist

Ray Crooke was born in Melbourne, Victoria in 1922. He served as a map-maker during the Second World War on Cape York Peninsula, Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, and Borneo. One of the most important inspirations towards his later career as a painter was, to come through, a trip by troop train from Perth across the Nullarbor Plain to the tip of Cape York Peninsula in 1942. The ancient Australian landscape, particularly its tropical north, had a profound impact on Crooke.

After the war Crooke resumed formal art studies in etching and drawing at Swinburne Technical College in Melbourne. He completed his studies in 1948, and for the next decade his artistic endeavours were focused on drawing and etching - these works being largely influenced by the work of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. Over this period he kept detailed illustrated journals of his travels to Thursday Island, Moa Island and the Great Barrier Reef - these were invaluable as references for later paintings.

Crooke didn't take up painting regularly until the late 1950's, by which time he was living on Cape York Peninsula, north of Cairns. His first major one-man exhibition was held at Australian Galleries, Melbourne in 1959. This was followed by one-man shows with Terry Clunes Galleries, Sydney and Skinner Galleries, Perth in 1960. The success of these exhibitions allowed Crooke to give up teaching and become a full time painter in 1961.

In terms of formal aesthetic influences, Crookes work is more informed by his love of the early Italian renaissance masters Piero Della Francesca and Giorgione, than it is by any influence from the 19th century French master Paul Gauguin, who is the artist most popularly cited in reference to Crookes work.

Although he shares Gauguin’s love of the primitive, the tropical islanders ethos and lifestyle, the values of simplified structure and purity of colours; his work is more imbued with the formal, aesthetic and philosophical qualities associated with the early renaissance. As James Gleeson was to write: "Crookes fascination with contours and silhouette, his placement of dark shapes against light, of dark against dark and light against light, and his dramatic tonal leaps are all qualities which can be found in the 15th century art of Piero Della Francesca".* It is this sensation of clear defining light that Crooke saw in the Frescoes of Piero Della Francesca and even in the 14th century Giotto, that is so important to his own work.

Crookes debt to Giorgione is illuminated in his own words: "....the painting I most wanted to see in Europe would have been 'La Tempesta' by could be that my attraction to this period of art in Europe allowed me to appreciate the Australian landscape - especially in the Laura and Palmer River paintings where I was able to introduce the stockman and pack horses in place of gods and shepherds".**

For all the apparent simplicity of his painting, Crooke is a complex artist. No line or mark or colour is there without a reason. His works are disciplined and considered pictorial symphonies - as Gavin Wilson observes: " takes time, often decades to absorb something of the essence of a place. Ray Crookes landscape paintings have emerged from a disciplined distillation of observed fact. The poetic metamorphosis from the topographic to the metaphysic takes place in the solitude of the artist’s studio".*** Another perceptive observation of Wilsons is that Crooke : "
....eschews the sentimental or heroic gesture, grounding his vision in the monumental simplicity and laconic grace of people shaped by their environment".****

Reflecting on his own work in 2000, Crooke wrote: "The songs are simple ones...the beauty lies in the extemporising of the patterns, beauty begets beauty and infects the jaded city dweller till he also wants only to lie on some green island, where the tropic moon rises in a velvet sky and the palms sing above the life below".*****

Crooke also paints wonderful portraits, and in 1969 he won the Archibald for a portrait of his friend, the writer George Johnston.  In 1993 Crooke was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to the visual arts.

Ray Crooke is a much loved and monumentally important Australian artist. He is part of a milieu that includes the likes of Nolan, Drysdale and Boyd,  in that he has been able to identify and illuminate a unique quality that pervades the Australian landscape and its inhabitants - his simple, poignant vision is manifested through a magnificent body of work spanning more than sixty years.

*   Encounters with country: landscapes of Ray Crooke.
***** Bronwyn Watson, "Ray Crooke, man of the north" The Australian, September 28, 2013


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