Menzies Art Brands



John Coburn was 51 when he painted Perfumed Garden in 1976. Coburn was enjoying professional success and was, according to a critic at the time, at the height of his powers as a painter.1 Perfumed Garden was exhibited at Australian Galleries in June of that year and is among his finest works of this period.

Coburns style was confirmed at an early age. Night Birds, painted at the beginning of his career in 1955, contains the same essential elements as Perfumed Garden. Both paintings combine sensitive formal qualities with a degree of spirituality. Subtle use of colour and rhythmic compositions, which are typical for this artist, derive from a restricted yet consistent vocabulary of animated forms. Over the majority of his working life, Coburns work remained true to its origins. With small refinements and changes in technique, Coburn sought to refresh his style while he gently tested its limits.
This progress, which can be seen as his work evolves through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, was driven by Coburn in a purposeful and yet organic manner. Innovations are introduced, assimilated and consolidated in a way that confirms him as a thoughtful and determined painter. The relationship between Coburn and abstraction provides a backbeat to his lifes work: at times his work is quite literal, while at other times it retains only the faintest vestige of the recognisable world.

Coburns garden contains plants jostling in space with ideographs of birdlike forms and the wafts of scented flowers. Pools, puddles, rocks, shafts of light and shadow, birdsong and breezes are conveyed by the simplest of shapes. Coburn strives for, and makes a virtue of, economy. These elements, painted more or less figuratively or implied, co-exist in their verdant environment in perfect balance. By setting the composition on a darker platform, or stage, the elements also gain a sense of enclosure, or of an arena where the elements are able to interact or to perform rituals.2 Coburn emphasises that the garden is deliberately aesthetic. It is an enclosed space filled with beauty which appeals to all the senses.

In Perfumed Garden, where the activities of God and man interact and where nature and art meet, Coburn aimed for and sought to represent spiritual grace. That such elevated notions are intended as the real subject of these paintings is clear. That these notions are neither high flown nor esoteric is consistent with all of Coburns art. His work is honest and sensible and his message is unambiguous.

Our understanding of Coburn is further informed by the professionalism of his approach and his work ethic. Perfumed Garden was produced at a time when the artist was busy and productive. The twelve-month period from February 1976 to January 1977 included solo shows at The Festival of Perth and the Queensland Festival, a major exhibition at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne, and an exhibition of tapestries, gouaches and screen-prints in New York. In 1977 he showed at the Orangerie at Versailles. Many paintings from this period were acquired by public collections, where they are presented as the best exemplars of the artist and his age.

1. Makin, J., Coburn Show the Best of 4, The Sun, 9 June 1976
2. Amadio, N., John Coburn Paintings, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1988, p.92

Timothy Abdallah BA


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