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Photo by Mark Mushet
The artist John Koerner.
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John Koerner: "A Retrospective: Six Decades"
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John Koerner, "Cosmic 15," acrylic on board, 2011, 11" X 15.5".
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"Celebration: Opus 14"
John Koerner, "Celebration: Opus 14," oil on canvas, 2005, 42" X 50".
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John Koerner, "The Fives," acrylic on paper, 1988, 17" X 22". Photo: Mark Mushet.
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"Cosmic African Scenes: African Memory"
John Koerner, "Cosmic African Scenes: African Memory," acrylic on board, 1977, 32" X 40".
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Photo by Mark Mushet
The artist John Koerner.
A CONTEMPORARY CENTURY
At 97, painter John Koerner recalls the decades-long evolution of the Vancouver art scene.
BY: Beverly Cramp
On June 25th, an unexpectedly large crowd filled the Elliott Louis Gallery to hear senior artist John Koerner’s talk about his six decades of living and painting in Vancouver. Accompanying a retrospective of Koerner’s work, 40 folding chairs were quickly occupied, and gallery owner Ted Lederer hustled to bring out the remaining 40 chairs he had rented for the occasion.
“I thought 80 chairs would be more than enough,” Lederer tells the audience. “We only had 60 people show up for a [Jean-Paul] Riopelle event.”
Koerner, a slight man wearing gray flannel trousers, white shirt and burgundy sweater, spoke at length. He barely glanced down at the sheaf of papers he brought with him. The stories poured out of him, beginning in a small town near Prague in 1913 where Koerner was born.
He first studied law at the University of Prague. “My father thought law would be more reliable than art,” he says. “He was right. Yet he also supported my passion for, and commitment to art.”
After finishing his law degree, Koerner went to Paris with his father’s blessing to study philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne. The city bristled with new art ideas in the 1920s — artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Breton and Salvador Dali were shaking up old traditions. “I attended Dali’s first exhibition in Paris,” Koerner recalls. Koerner’s paintings were, from the beginning, expressionistic and verging on the abstract. He painted mostly landscapes and only a few figurative works, but the events of World War II overtook Koerner’s life and his family wisely chose to leave Europe. An uncle bought a lumber mill in the Vancouver area and Koerner decided to join him in there. When his Parisian friends found out that he was relocating, they didn’t know where Vancouver was and told him he must be going to some far-off corner of the world.
Koerner arrived at his new home in May, 1939. “Vancouver was a small city. I was taken on a sight-seeing tour the day I arrived. At one point, near UBC, I could see the opening of the harbour and the mountains surrounding the city and the beaches. I was immediately in love with Vancouver. Even as a boy I had always hoped to live by the sea and there it was.” These outdoor vistas became the main subject of Koerner’s landscapes.
The city’s art venues impressed much less. “There was one commercial gallery on Robson Street and it was mostly a framing shop. And there was also the Vancouver Art Gallery on Georgia Street. This was before the VAG moved to its present location on Robson Street.”
The art collected and shown at the VAG during this early period underwhelmed Koerner, as he wrote in his autobiography A Brush with Life. “[It] was a small, sad edifice with a small sad art collection. The Group of Seven was represented by a motley group of sketches and minor canvases, works that an amateur collector might have gathered at auction, and there were no Emily Carr paintings.”
Koerner goes on to write that the gallery vastly expanded its permanent collection after the 1950s. The most influential man behind these changes was Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, who lived in Vancouver from 1940 until he died in 1970. Koerner and Harris became friends in the late 1940s. “When he asked me to join the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition committee, we spent even more time together,” wrote Koerner. “I found his cosmopolitan attitude and sensitive manner most appealing.”
Harris organized Saturday night parties at his West Vancouver home, where classical or jazz music played, coffee was served, poetry read, and art debated. “We had some very good times together,” says Koerner. “People discussed ideas, sometimes we looked at what we had produced and discussed in great detail the directions our work was taking.”
Koerner recalls that Harris often painted in his living room. “His walls were painted white and most of his furniture was white. He would put down a small canvas covering in a corner of room and do his paintings. It surprised me that he never smudged his white carpet.”
It was Harris who first drew Koerner’s attention to Emily Carr. Her vividly painted British Columbia landscapes, although noticed by critics and forward-thinking artists, were mainly ignored by the general public. “Lawren had switched to pure abstract form but he didn’t limit himself by any means to that. He realized there were all kinds of different ways of saying certain things. But he certainly was interested in showing what abstract art was about, because it was virtually unknown here, hadn’t been seen in Vancouver.”
Gordon Smith, a contemporary of Koerner’s, recalls that even Harris had a difficult time getting his abstract work recognized. In an interview for a 1982 documentary about Harris, Smith said: “I really feel that his new work was neglected to some degree because everyone thought of the Group of Seven as a Canadian sort of landscape tradition, and at that time, he began to paint in a very abstract way, almost like Kandinsky...I think in British Columbia there’d been a...landscape tradition with people like Varley and Jock Macdonald...and Emily Carr. There was very little abstraction. Even Jack Shadbolt hadn’t really become involved in that kind of expression, so really, it was a great impact on the young artist. Harris was a sort of hero figure to us all.”
The struggle for acceptance in Western Canada of the emerging modernist works by Koerner and his colleagues is exemplified by a catalogue essay for a ground-breaking show at the University of Manitoba’s New Gallery in September, 1953. Called Progressive Painters of Western Canada — the phrase modern art wasn’t yet in vogue — the exhibition was formally opened by Harris. The curator, William McCloy wrote: “...the artists in the West are divided into two major groups: the Conservatives — those mainly concerned with skill in rendering with imitation of nature especially in its picturesque manifestations, and with emphasis on good taste; and those whom I term Progressives, who are concerned with personal interpretation, and with emphasis of design and material.”
Artists in the show were a who’s who of avant-garde artists of the time, including Koerner (who spelled his name without the ‘e’ in those years) and others: B.C. Binning, Bruno Bobak, Molly Bobak, Lawren Harris, Donald Jarvis, Roy Kiyooka, Joe Plaskett, Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, and Takao Tanabe.
The excitement over new ways to make art was building in Vancouver. “I remember meeting with Jack Shadbolt and Bert Binning at my house on Adera Street. We agreed that we should find ways to exhibit our works here,” says Koerner. They were to get their opportunity when New Design Gallery opened in West Vancouver in 1955. “We all exhibited there,” Koerner recalls.
Events in the United States helped turn the tide for Vancouver modernist painters. “I think that with the appearance of the abstract impressionist school in New York, there was an immense increase in publicity, not only in the art publications, but also in the press,” says Koerner. “And that was a stimulus for the public to realize that what was being seen here in Vancouver was not that crazy.”
That was the turning point. Koerner, who had been working for his uncle, eventually turned to teaching art in the 1950s, first at the Vancouver School of Art and later the University of British Columbia. He continued painting almost every day and is still actively producing works today.