Appearances are distracting. What you feel about a thing is important, not what it looks like. I don’t want to teach people to see. I want to get them to feel.1
John Coburn’s magisterial Seven Days of Creation tapestry series of 1969 is only matched for significance by his two celebrated curtain tapestries created for the Sydney Opera House a year later and are a prelude to those works. As a measure of the contemporary status of the Creation tapestries, the second edition was presented by the Australian Government to the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington in 1970.
These early tapestries evolved from the steady progress of Coburn’s paintings, from his first solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1953 through to the 1960s when his practice as a painter gathered pace and local recognition, coalescing in 1960 when he won the prestigious Blake Prize for Religious Art, with a semi-figurative triptych of The Passion. Over the following decade, Coburn’s pictorial vocabulary of signs, symbols, shapes, and their careful placement, would be formed.
Raised as an Anglican, Coburn had converted to Catholicism in 1953 before his marriage to a fellow art student at Sydney’s National Art School, Barbara Woodward, whose printmaking practice would later both translate and inflect his own work.
Coburn’s painting of this time was considered by his fellow Sydney artists as not sufficiently engaged in linear abstraction, rather in abstract shape, so he was excluded, painfully, from the Sydney 9 group’s exhibition in 1960, set up to counter the Melbourne-based figurative expressionist artists of the Antipodean group.
Abstract art for Coburn went ‘beyond symbolism into the underlying order which gives all symbols meaning. That is the order of God.’2 Such a conviction gave the compressed colour forms of his paintings, exhibited in Sydney later in 1960, a sense of premeditated purpose and inevitable placement, like ‘a jigsaw puzzle’.3 The critic, Robert Hughes, perceived Coburn’s singularity as a non-figurative artist in his review of the show, describing Coburn as ‘an ideographic painter’ evincing ‘little personal flourish’, but noted that his work’s ‘near religious ambition gives it an impressive inner coherence’, and concluded ‘the essence of Mr Coburn’s
vision is its dedicated, sustained search for a visual equivalent to the underlying order of nature – whatever it is that binds rocks, earth, fruit, sun, sky, flowers and people into an immense whole.’4
Coburn’s paintings of the 1960s were then distinguished by his deep religious conviction expressed through his love of nature, the feeling of its experience, the remembered forms of tropical landscape and vegetation of his Queensland childhood, seeking, as he said in 1962, ‘images that are charged with associations and memories of places, and things that I have experienced.’5 Coburn insisted that his work was always based on his experience of the Australian landscape, and, for him, ‘felt very Australian’.6
By the mid-1960s, Coburn’s paintings were showing the effects of his absorption of both the flat, hard-edged paintings of post-war American art and the pictorial lessons of School of Paris masters he had viewed in French Painting Today, a government sponsored exhibition that toured all Australian capital cities in 1953.
Among the 119 paintings of this exhibition were four tapestries including one by Jean Lurcat executed by the Aubusson Tabard workshop, and Henri Matisse’s Polynesia (1947-48) with its free-floating organic shapes ranged across an airy blue ground. These tapestries had impressed Coburn at the time and affirmed his admiration for medieval tapestries and stained glass gleaned from collected reproductions. So, in 1966 when Coburn, now recognized as a successful contemporary painter, was invited to create tapestries by a visiting agent for the venerable Aubusson workshop (which used Australian wool), his early interest was reignited and he produced three designs on paper, developed from his Sun paintings of 1966, and these became the first Australian tapestry commission by Aubusson.
While living in Canberra in 1969, Coburn made sketches of the seven days of the Creation story as told by the Book of Genesis, conceived quickly as an ideal subject for his new-found medium of woven tapestry. He then moved to France with his family to be more actively involved with their weaving process, as well as with the newly commissioned designs for the Sydney Opera House stage curtains.7
The Creation tapestry series represents Coburn at his assured best, achieved from the previous two decades of striving to find his style which he described as ‘precise, clear and deliberate.’8 Their bold configurations of vibrant colour shapes – predominantly lush reds, yellows, blue – some set across dark horizontal bands, all derive from the various components of Coburn’s 1960s paintings.
Animated by the spirit of their own joyous inception by the artist, the Creation tapestries tell the biblical story of the universe’s divine ordering, made gloriously real through their sumptuous material presence. The archetypal forms marshalled to represent the cosmic event draw on different religions, from the Christian chalice and Buddhist mandala to the Taoist Yin/Yang circle and Judaism’s menorah, offset by natural organic forms and, for the 6th Day, shadowy human figures. All seem to have fallen wondrously, as befits
the celestial subject, into their ordained place in the symphonic whole.
1. John Coburn, quoted in Hughes, R., ‘Coburn: Quiet, Shy and abstract,’ The Observer, Sydney, 7 February 1959; quoted in Crumlin, R., Images of Religion in Australian Art, Bay Books, Sydney, 1988, p.78
2. John Coburn, quoted in Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1970 (revised edition), p.276
3. Ibid., p.277
4. Hughes, R., ‘Coburn Jigsaws,’ The Nation, Sydney, 19 November 1960, quoted in Klepac, L., John Coburn, The Spirit of Colour, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2003, p.52
5. John Coburn, quoted in Rozen, A., The Art of John Coburn, Ure Smith, Sydney,
6. John Coburn, quoted in Amadio N., John Coburn: Paintings, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1988, p.56
7. Coburn remained in France with the Aubusson workshop until 1972, returning to Sydney to take up the position as Head of the National Art School.
8. John Coburn, quoted in Klepac, L., op. cit., p.104
Jenepher Duncan is an independent art consultant.