Having his say
By BRUCE JUDDERY
F°R a professed non
intellectual, who asserts that "What I do is intuitive", John Coburn is surprisingly articulate about his work. But perhaps it is not so suiprising. As Canberra's only full time, self - employed artist he no doubt feels the need to establish his right to live amongst the nine-to-fivers.
"I believe an artist is a very essential member of society", he says firmly. "Most people think of the artist as a sort of perfor mer who can do tricks with the eye, show pretty pic
tures and so on.
"Biit the true artist, the serious artist, is as necess ary as the doctor or brick layer or politician in that he is putting into visual - form society's deepest
needs. In this technological ' age the artist is like a rc ' search scientist in that he ' js explaining the visual
form and adding to the , sum of the knowledge of
He adds: "He is gener ally ahead of his time; it takes people time to catch up. But if he is sincere he . plays a sort of prophetic ; role in the — sort of —
forming of the environ ment, if you like".
With that manifesto off his chest he returns to more mundane matters, like explaining to his small son, Daniel, that it is not yet time to go swimming. In fact it is past the time originally promised, but . Daniel cannot read a clock
yet, so he feels safe. His two elder children, Chris tine and Stephen, are ap
parently content to wait while their father talks. His wife Barbara, on this_ occa sion, has just left him in charge of the house while
she visits Civic.
The building is quite conventional, grey and be low the level of Curlewis Cresccnt, Garran. The most singular feature about it is the Coburns' custom of parking their Ford station wagon and mini-car on the • road or drive outside and • not in the large garage that
is built in to the house. ,, That has been turned into
a sludio and the walls are stacked with' large and
The house suits John - Coburn. He, too, is un
prepossessing on first ac quaintance. He tends to speak slowly and cautious ly, a good straight man for his wife, who does neither.
But he also has his own • pleasant, quiet sense of
humour. It is perhaps more suited to a retiring aca demic which, with his re ceding hair and mild man ■ ner, he sometimes gives
an impression of being. But his tastes are suitable to the "bohemian" stereo type. He drinks beer mostly (and without damage to his
waistline) and wine and spirits on occasion and sits frlrfj1 "Igfht taIkin8 With friends after which he wakes up "fragile", all in the approved artistic man
This year he will make the approved pilgrimage to Paris where, he and the family will take over a studio-apartment in the Cite des Artes, an area set aside by the French Gov ernment as a sort of official, garret-free, artists'
'Hiey will stop in Swit zerland, too, where the actor James Mason says he has a wall suitable for a large Coburn painting; be already has one small one ,n"d « tapestry as well, when Mason played the painter in the film of Nor man Lindsay's 'Age of Consent m Queensland last year, the film com pany hired a collection of John Coburn's paintings.
The choice was logical enough, though apparently ,l. made on the basis simply of a quick look over some canvases in a oydney gallery. For Mr Coburn was raised in tropical Queensland and the sun and vegetation of the region was the subject and inspiration for most of his work until, a few years ago, he adopted a more geometrical style that he considers more evocative of the present
Born in Ingham in 1925, John Coburn moved from town to town with his mother and two younger sisters as his bank manager father went from branch to branch. His father died when the boy was 10 and the family settled in Halifax, near Ingham, where Mrs Coburn married a cane farmer five years later. Now he has two sisters married to cane farmers, and two half-brothers rais ing it. 'I think they're re signed to it", he said of their reaction to his choice
"Before the war, when was a kid, I was always drawing or painting. I dont know Wtiy; there's absolutely nothing in North Queensland to en courage an interest in art. I didn't see my first oil painting until I was 13 and went to Sydney on
"I was pulled out of
school when I was 14 to go into a bank", he con tinues. "It was expected of me, and besides, my mother couldn't afford to keep me at school. But I'm afraid the bank and I just
At this stage Mrs Coburn chipped in with a iale about John putting a cheque for £145,500 into his pockct and forgetting about it. "They were very glad When he left", she said. Her husband owned that he was "saved by the war", which he spent on a destroyer, rising from Ordinary Telegraphist- to Telegraphist.
After the war, at his mother's urging and be cause an aptitude test could find nothing else he was suited for, except stonemason or storekeeper, he went back to the bank, but stuck it for only three months. Then he went to
Sydney and began studying art, in 1947, at the East Sydney Technical College.
He promptly met Barbara, then just 15 and out of school with her Intermediate. "I was always so damn poor that we never had any money. Still, we had a great time on the £3/10/- that the Civil Reconstruction Training Scheme gave me; we went out to dinner almost every night and we can't do that
In 1953 they were mar ried, after John had con verted • to Catholicism, though only partly in def
erence to Barbara's beliefs. He gives the credit to Karl Marx. "At that time I was pretty Red", he explains. "I wasn't a Communist, but I'd read Marx. In 'Das
Kapital' he has a lot to say about the Church. I suppose it's he who sets me thinking". No doubt Marx's spirit grieves.
What with having and rearing children, Mrs Co burn's own career was stifled for the next 10 or
12 years. She held her first art show, in Canberra, just last year. When Robin Wallace-Crabbe was fairly critical of her work in a review in The Canberra Times, her husband leaped to her defence in the let ters column. Gallantry aside, perhaps his remarks contained an echo of guilt and regret for her career, curtailed once before.
Mr Coburn finished his four-year training dissatis fied. "I'd learned to paint portraits and landscapes and to draw from the human figure ... but at the end I said 'So what; what's it good for?
"But in 1953 the French Government sent out a big exhibition of recent French painting and it was a reve
lation to me. Here was an art form that was right up to today, that was really meaningful in the context of the 20th Century. I knew then that I had something to say".
He took two or three years more to learn how to say. it. He worked in factories in the meantime (and injured his hand in a bottling machine) and lived in a flat in Rose Bay, and painted when he could. "I didn't know if I was any good. No one else thought
But by 1955-56 he was starting to find his own style. "It's a flat-patterned style of painting, using brilliant colour combina tions based on natural or organic images", he says. The "natural or organic images" were drawn from the tropics and the sugges tion of jungle foliage is plain in his abstractions.
He became part of an Australian "rennaissance" in painting. "There was something very important going on, to me anyhow. I dont' think art is created in isolation; an. artist, to me, is someone in tune with the environment around him. And in Sydney in the 50s the whole pattern of Australian life was chang ing.
"At the end of the war there was an Establishment in Australian art that had been the Establishment since the 20s. But this was all crumbling and new values were coming out of it". The "new breed" in cluded Tom Gleghorn, John Olsen, Leonard Hess ing, Eric Smith, Stan Rapotec, the sculptor Bob Klippel and himself.
"We_ sort of distilled something that was new in the Australian environ ment", Mr Coburn goes on. "It was part "of a world-wide thins that
matured after the war; \vc were a part of this, though we didn't know just what we were doing".
In 1956 he joined the ABC when television came in, working on set design and art work. "I quite en joyed that, though it wasn't very satisfying artistically. You could never put any effort into anything because it all had to be done so fast".
In 1959 he went to the Sydney Technical College as a teacher and spent nine years teaching, in cluding a year at the Can berra Technical College doing his "country service" for the Department of Technical Education. A year ago he was able to turn to painting full-time.
He indicated a large canvas in just two colours — green foliage on blue
Mr Coburn — expression in words and paint.
— and remarked that it would probably realise $2,000. It had taken only a week to exccute, but he said, the basic idea, then the design of such works, often takes six months to evolve.
He designs mainly tapestries in this style, now. One reason for go ing to Franco is to work in the Aubusson tapestry workshops and learn more about the old art of tapes try weaving; he has dc
signed for Aubusson for
There is a large reli gious element in much of this work and, indeed, a great deal of his total opus. In 1960 he won the Blake Prize for religious art with his Triptych of the Passion'. He pointed to a small painting, mainly in golds and browns, and explained how the sun and the seven-boughed vine and the goblet all possess religious symbolism.
He discussed his Catho licism. "That's a stretch of the imagination, isn't it", his wife objected.
"Well, perhaps", he agreed. "Perhaps I'm a 'tired' Catholic", he said. "I'm afraid I've been very disillusioned about the Church in many ways ... as an institution, a human institution.
"It seems to me they're still in the 19th Century. I suppose they're trying to pull themselves out of it and I was very excited about the Vatican Coun cil, but nothing seems to have happened since then; in fact they're going back
He spoke about the changing nature of his art. "During the 50s you could say that art was generally concerned with the emo tions, with expressing feel ing and it did this through its relationship with
His own abstractions on tropical flora reflected that period. And it translated readily into religious sym bolism as he went about, sorting out his own ideas even more than looking for motifs for tapestries. "In many ways religion has a set of answers that, if you probe a bit deeper you find all sorts of deep things".
By contrast, "The art of the 60s is non-emotional,
non-involved, not neccs sarly concerned with na ture but with the urban environment so what comcs out in my art is basically industrial images".
Most of his work now is rigidly geometrical, bands and blobs of colour leap ing from the canvas to im part a sort of three-dimen sional quality. He pointed to one, three bands of colour, drawn largely with a compass. "These arc all technical things", he said. "I'm more concered whether the colours are balanced and so forth than with what they mean. If it's good, they'll have meaning".
Though to this writer, who has monumental ig norance of such matters, they tend to be little more than tricks of the eye that Mr Coburn speaks of slightingly, critics think otherwise and they sell. Presumably they arc just another example of the artist's progress beyond the rest of his society — or at any rate this particular member of it.
"I simply paint these things to explain the world to myself", he said, "if it's possible to create man's spiritual relationship to the world through nature, then it must also be pos sible to create man's spiri tual relationship to the world through science and technology". From a non intellectual, this is pretty strong, intellectual meat.