Menzies Art Brands



John Coburn carved out a highly influential career spanning more than five decades - unlike many of his peers he mastered a variety of mediums including painting, printmaking and tapestry design. His objective as an artist was simply to express his personal experiences with the natural world. Coburn drastically differentiated himself from his contemporaries who were concerned with post-war modernism themes of figuration and poetry. Coburns work dances to the beat of its own drum with its geometric abstraction and religiously spiritual connections to the Australian landscape and the life-force within it.

Coburns oeuvre had its foundations in the artistic output of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), in particular, his infamous Jazz series of vibrantly coloured paper cut collages of the 1940s. In Along the Diamantina 2001, Coburn brilliantly employed Matisses guiding principle of minimalism together with gradation of tone and colours derived from an identifiably Australian setting. Aspects of the Australian landscape are refined into representative colours and repetitious elementary forms, with the artist codifying the Outback into simultaneously aerial and linear perspectives creating a harmonious balance with the riverbank and alluding to its spiritual undertones. 

In the present work, the artists depicts the banks of the Diamantina by fracturing and reconstituting the famous Queensland rivers key features. Seeing the landscape through Coburns eyes, rock formations jostle above the flowing water and the sky embraces all the elements below with its warm glow and everlasting horizon. Along the Diamantina is partitioned into the broad sky, rocky land and shallow waters. These fundamental contrasting elements exist together in a serene ecosystem where dark and light pulse beneath the oil surface and the geometric shapes harmoniously balance with the inviting blues of a skyline at dusk.

All my work is deliberately abstract so that people can read into it whatever they like. I like it to be that way. I find that if I paint naturalistically then it loses its symbolic power. It might be what the eye actually sees in nature, but it is only what you see, it is no longer symbolic.  To retain the symbolic power my work tends to be semi-abstract.1

Whist Coburn emerged as an artist during a period of international preoccupation with reductionist abstraction and minimalism, Coburn never entirely departed from representation. In this way, he created his own visual language in painting and significantly enhanced the tradition of Australian landscape painting.

During his studies at East Sydney Technical College in the old Darlinghurst Goal, where he would later go on to teach, Coburn discovered a deep affection for Australias rich history of Indigenous art. Combining the abstraction techniques of the French modernists with the spiritualism of Aboriginal painting, Coburn forged a new and original way of painting - this unique style can only be described as Coburn-esque. 

Along the Diamantina is an example of the artists ability to balance figuration with abstraction in a fluid style using a multitude of vibrant and uncompromising tones. His observation, digestion and expression of nature evokes a spiritual and otherworldliness that we detect not only with our physical senses but also our subconsciousness. These elements are felt within our souls. Renewal is central to Coburns work; he explores regeneration in nature and on a religious level, the human spirit.2

John Coburns work has had a profound impact on our history of painting. He has exhibited extensively in Australia as well as Paris, New York, Washington, Moscow and Hong Kong. His work is represented in all major Australian galleries, various regional galleries and notable international collections such as the Vatican Museum, Rome and Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna. Coburn was awarded the Order of Australia in 1980 for his contribution to Australian art and his work continues to inspire young artists and designers alike.

Tessa Dorman MA (Art History and Theory)

1. John Coburn cited in Klepac, L., John Coburn: The Spirit of Colour, The Beagle Press, Roseville, 2003, p.24

2. Amadio, N., John Coburn: Paintings, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1988, p.5


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