Born : 23 September, 1925
Birthplace : Ingham, Queensland Australia
Education & Training : National Art School
Known for : Abstract painter, teacher, tapestry designer and printmaker
Artworks : Tree of Life, Perfumed Garden, Field, etc.,
Residence : 1969 – 1972 France
Other Occupation : Graphic Designer, Teacher, National Art School [East Sydney Technical College],Darlinghurst, NSW

In an extraordinary career, spanning some six decades, Coburn’s accolades were many. Most notably he was awarded the prestigious Blake Prize for religious art in 1960 and again in 1977. In 1980 he was awarded Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of service to art. Undoubtedly he is best known by many Australians for his 1970 commission to design the great tapestry curtains for the Sydney Opera House, Curtain of the Sun and Curtain of the Moon.
Coburn is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, all state galleries, many regional galleries, and other public collections in Australia and overseas, including Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna; the John F Kennedy Centre, Washington; and the Vatican Museum, Rome.



First published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 14 October-December 2000


John Coburn has painted for the past half a century according to a simple philosophy: “I want to express my feeling about nature and the world.” Adopting religious and spiritual themes in his pursuit of abstract art as his mode of expression has obliged Coburn to pursue a lonely course, apart from the mainstream of postwar Australian painters. It is only in recent years, when the consistency of his approach has been appreciated and his paintings have achieved greater depth and colour, that his reputation has spread and wider recognition has been accorded. At the time of writing Coburn is widely held to be Australia’s foremost living abstract artist.

Coburn was born in 1926 in the sugar town of Ingham in North Queensland. He went to boarding school at All Souls in Charters Towers and left school at 15 to work in a local bank. In 1942, at the age of 17, he joined the navy where he became a radio operator.

At the war’s end he returned to a bank job in far western Queensland but after only a few months he fled to Sydney intending to enrol as a fulltime art student under the Ex-Serviceman’s Rehabilitation Scheme at the East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst (later to become the National Art School).

After missing the deadline to enter the art school, he presented art teacher Frank Norton with a parcel of drawings of warships. Norton took one look at the sketches and announced: “You’re in!” He graduated in 1952 and became a teacher at the art school before joining the ABC as a graphic designer between 1956 and 1959. He held his first one-man show in 1957 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Melbourne. A year later he held his first exhibition with legendary Melbourne dealers Anne and Thomas ‘Tam’ Purves at Australian Galleries, and has been represented by Australian in Melbourne ever since, although in the past three years he has struck up a successful exhibiting relationship with Vic Stafford’s Armadale gallery, Axia Modern Art.

In 1966 his career took a momentous detour when he was invited to design tapestries for the world-renowned Aubusson Workshops, 250 kilometres south of Paris. He moved to France three years later to live in the Paris suburb of Croissy-sur-Seine and achieved almost immediate fame with his designs for the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon for the new Sydney Opera House;

While another series of seven tapestries, The Creation, were presented to the USA as a gift from the Australian Governmen. These were hung in the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington. Years later he recalled: “The move to France could have been a humble failure, but in fact it was a great success. My paintings were beginning to sell and I kept hoping that cheques would turn up in the mail so that we would have enough money to stay in Paris, and they did.”

During the 1970s, emboldened by his European experience and successful solo exhibitions in both Paris and New York, Coburn had gained sufficient confidence to embark on his own artistic mission: to develop a distinctly Australian abstract visual language. He sought a confluence of Western European culture, the Roman Catholic religion, Aboriginal spirituality and nature. His international influences were Matisse, Miro, Mondrian and Picasso and Rothko.

His agnostic contemporaries watched in fascination as Coburn religiously pursued his holy abstractions. 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.” This attitude didn’t stop Coburn from changing galleries, in Sydney especially.

His first and longest association was with the influential Macquarie Galleries, which he joined in 1958, left and then returned in the 1980s. From the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, Coburn showed with Hungry Horse Gallery first under Betty O’Neill and later Kym Bonython. After short stints with Barry Stern and Rex Irwin, Coburn returned to Eileen Chanin at Macquarie. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, Coburn had been with Australian Galleries from the beginning. When Stuart Purves set up the Sydney branch of Australian Galleries, Coburn decided to make it his Sydney home as well.

Coburn had been brought up an Anglican but converted to Catholicism in 1953 when he married Barbara Woodward, who would become one of the country’s foremost silk-screen printers. Her death in 1985 following a long illness was one of the most traumatic episodes in his life. It cast him into a period of personal suffering reflected in the dark colours and deathly images of that period. His search for an Australian iconography in spirituality seemed to have come to a dead end in the form of repetition. While he never strayed from his Catholic convictions, his approach became more liberal and less dogmatic. In 1991 he told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Deidre Macpherson: “Basically, I believe in the teaching of the Church. But I do feel quite strongly that the Church is way behind contemporary culture. People are leaving the Church today in droves because what they’re teaching doesn’t relate to them. People need spiritual guidance and I’m a Christian because I learnt Western European culture. If I was born in India I’d be a Hindu or a Buddhist – which are equally as valid as Christianity.”
These more expansive views coincided with the production of an 8.5metre by 26m backdrop for a conference of the World Council of Churches which featured the chalice, a Jewish menorah, a sacred circle representing Christ and ultimately God.

It also coincided with a greater personal interest in Aboriginal Australia. He visited the Northern Territory – Kakadu, Alice Springs and the  Gulf Country –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.”

For a man who had said in 1988, “I think we’ve realised that art is not going to change the world,” Coburn, now in his 60s, became an activist. He joined a group of artists contributing to Wild Art, an exhibition of works to oppose  woodchipping in NSW South Coast forests. His contribution, Guardian, was a print which paid tribute to tall trees. The artist said. “I think it is disgraceful and appalling that our beautiful forests are sent to Japan as woodchips.”

When the Australian Republican Movement held an exhibition of 70 designs by leading artists for an Australian republican flag, Coburn was among them, and when Sorry Day was held in 1998 to express remorse for the stolen generation, he volunteered his name. On becoming one of the 69 prominent Australians to sponsor the event, Coburn admitted he knew about the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents but did not think until recently about how much hurt it caused. It made him conclude that a reconciliatory step was necessary and he was impressed by the remark of central Australian painter Michael Tjakamarra, himself a stolen child, who said: “Forgiveness is coming through art.” Coburn agreed. “Aboriginal art is now popular not only in Australia but in other countries,” he said, “and through that Aboriginal people are regarded with a new dignity.” This from a painter who had earlier denied that art could act as an agent for change.

In Christmas 1999 his paintings had a unique opportunity to affect the national consciousness when they were chosen to grace Australia Post’s stamps and aerograms. His 40 cent stamp featured an interpretation of Madonna and Child while his $1 stamp carried a representation of his Tree of Life and the aerogram depicted the Christ Child. It represented a private joy for Coburn: he had brought much derided abstract art to the pinnacle of the commercial art marketplace – the postage stamp.

Coburn, a quiet, noble and gentle person, has shunned the flamboyant and media-hungry style of many of his colleagues in the art world. In reference books the words ‘consistent’ and ‘control’ feature prominently. His consistency has been criticised as variations on a theme and when critic Bronwyn Watson tasted his 1987 Macquarie Galleries exhibition with John Beard she wrote: “Coburn’s art often seems dull and decorative.” Fellow artist Charles Blackman was more appreciative saying: “John Coburn… strives for the ideal. His  commitment to the organic shape of his religious feeling has been unfailing.” And art historian Bernard Smith has written: “He is one of the very few painters in Sydney who has succeeded in endowing non-figurative work with genuine religious feeling.”

In 1997 Coburn suffered a stroke which left him with one leg paralysed. For all but five or so years of his 81 years, he lived and worked in Sydney. Earlier in 2000 he moved his studio from inner city Surry Hills to the apartment next door to his own home in suburban Lindfield. The smaller confines are at once more convenient but more restrictive. He will not beproducing any more massive canvases.

Coburn, who was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) in 1980 and an honorary doctorate at James Cook University, Townsville, in 1991, isn’t likely to be swayed by his critics or his fans. He’s on a mission from God.

The Best Works

In 1960 and again in 1977 Coburn won the Blake Prize for Religious Art. The first Blake was for the triptych entitled The Passion in the collection of the St Patrick’s College, Manly, and the second for Hosanna 1, which is privately held.
His Tree of Life has appeared in many variations, including a 1973 painting which hangs in the Vatican Museum in Rome. His Opera House tapestries – The Curtain of the Moon and The Curtain of the Sun – located in the Drama and Opera theatres respectively are currently at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop being cleaned, repaired and restored.
A spokesperson told AAC the Sydney Opera House Trust is still deciding about where to rehang the works upon their return, but to the lay observer back to where they were made to go would seem most appropriate.
His two most popular and impressive lithographs are Annitowa landscape and Kimberley landscape while Jazz 1 and Jazz 2, reflecting his love of the trad jazz of Graeme Bell, are other favourites. Coburn is exhibited new works inspired by Bell at Eva Breuer Gallery in Sydney’s Woollahra, in September 2000.

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