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John COBURN (b.1925; d.2006)

Photo of ArtistJohn Coburn was born in Ingham, North Queensland in 1925. His family moved frequently from town to town as his bank manager father moved from branch to branch. Coburn’s father died when he was 10 and the family settled in Halifax where his mother re-married a cane farmer. Coburn was sent to boarding school at All Souls in Charters Towers. ** As a child, Coburn says that he was always drawing or painting but didn’t see an oil painting until the family paid a visit to the Art Gallery of NSW while on holidays to Sydney when Coburn was 13. He was smitten by an Arthur Streeton work and decided that be wanted to be an artist. Coburn left school at 14 to work in a local bank, as he was expected to do. Then, during the war, he joined the navy, where he became a radio operator. At the end of the war, he returned to far western Queensland to his bank job, but, after only a few months, he decided to move to Sydney, intending to enrol as a full-time art student under the Ex-Serviceman’s Rehabilitation Scheme at the East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst (later to become the National Art School). He missed the deadline to enrol but presented art teacher Frank Norton with a parcel of drawings of warships which so impressed Norton that he facilitated Coburn’s late enrolment. *

It was at East Sydney Technical College that Coburn met his future wife, Barbara Woodward, who would become one of the country’s foremost silk-screen printers. They both graduated in 1952 and married in 1953. * Coburn became a teacher at the National Art School before joining the ABC as a graphic designer between 1956 and 1959. He returned to the National Art School as a teacher in 1959, remaining there for 9 years, before retiring to become a full-time artist in 1968, though he did return to art education as Head of the National Art School from 1972 to 1974. ***

Coburn had converted to Catholicism when he married Woodward and his work become more meditative and spiritual. He also became fascinated with tapestries. In 1966, Coburn was invited to design tapestries for the world-renowned Aubusson Workshops, south of Paris. * By 1969, his tapestry skills saw him move his family to Paris. He took workshops and designed tapestries, as well as painted and made prints.

In 1972 Coburn undertook the biggest commission of his career, two huge tapestries, The Curtains of the Sun and Moon, for the Sydney Opera House. They were woven in Aubusson and are regarded as his masterpieces.

In later life, Coburn appreciated Aboriginal art and the interpretation of the land by Australian abstract landscape artist Fred Williams. In 1988, he visited the Northern Territory and produced some of his most adventurous works: Tribal Totem and a diptych of Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu National Park. He said at the time: “We come from a European culture – we have been here 200 years. It’s time for us to relate to the land as the Aborigines do and have the same feeling for it.” * He also became an activist, joining a group of artists contributing to Wild Art, an exhibition of works to oppose wood-chipping in NSW South Coast forests.

Coburn died in November 2006. He was was known as a kind, gentle, thoughtful man who devoted his life to painting and art education and is acknowledged as one of Australia’s greatest artists.

Coburn held his first solo exhibition in 1957 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Melbourne. In 1958, he held his first exhibition with legendary Melbourne dealers Anne and Thomas ‘Tam’ Purves at Australian Galleries. * From then, Coburn held numerous solo and group exhibitions, including successful solo exhibitions in Paris and New York. Coburn won first prize at the Bathurst Regional Art Show in 1952. In both 1960 and 1977 Coburn won the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Coburn was awarded the Order of Australia for his resonant practice and contributions to Australian Art, in 1980, and an honorary doctorate at James Cook University, Townsville, in 1991. His paintings were used for Australian postage stamps and aerograms in December 1999. *

Coburn is one of Australia’s most eminent abstract artists. His work sings with rich colour, using flat-patterned shapes to evoke spirituality and emotion. Coburn said: “I don’t think art is created in isolation; an artist, to me, is someone in tune with the environment around him”. ** His bio-morphic and iconic shapes draw on religious and cultural influences and the Australian Landscape, especially his childhood home in tropical North Queensland. *

Coburn was greatly influenced by abstract masters such as Matisse, Rothko and Picasso. His later paintings typically incorporate large, stylised shapes in glowing colours, his bold approach also working marvels on tapestries. He said: “I simply paint these things to explain the world to myself. If it’s possible to create man’s spiritual relationship to the world through nature, then it must also be possible to create man’s spiritual relationship to the world through science and technology”. ** He also said: “It’s always seemed to me that the artist’s task is to take this chaos and reveal some order in it. I’ve always sought an order in my work. I think that my work is successful when it arrives at that particular order. It’s not resolved until it has a certain order. It’s a purely visual thing. One knows when it’s right and when it’s wrong simply by looking.” ***

His artistic mission was to develop a distinctly Australian abstract visual language through a confluence of Western European culture, the Roman Catholic religion, Aboriginal spirituality and nature. Fellow artist Charles Blackman said: “John Coburn… strives for the ideal. His commitment to the organic shape of his religious feeling has been unfailing.” And art historian Bernard Smith wrote: “He is one of the very few painters in Sydney who has succeeded in endowing non-figurative work with genuine religious feeling.” To those who wondered about the singlemindedness of his enterprise, Coburn replied: “There’s nothing worse than an artist who continually changes style. My work is still evolving and developing along the same path”. *

Coburn’s works are represented in Collections across Australia, including the Sydney Opera House, the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia as well as at the J.F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts, Washington DC and in the Vatican Museum, Rome. *

* John Coburn: Spirit of Abstraction, Alex Mitchell, Australian Art Collector, Issue 14, October – December 2000 ** Having his say – on canvas, Bruce Juddery, Canberra Times, 22 January 1969 *** James Gleeson Interviews: John Coburn, The James Gleeson oral history collection, National Gallery of Australia, 30 May 1979


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