John Koerner | The Hidden Side of Nature | A Centennial Celebration


John Koerner was born in Nový Jicín, Czechoslovakia on September 29, 1913, and he displayed an early interest in art. Later he studied under Fritz Kausek in Prague (1931-34) and under Othon Friesz, Victor Tischler and Paul Colin in Paris (1938-39) and also studied the history and philosophy of art at the Sorbonne.

He came to Canada in 1939 and settled in Vancouver, B.C., and became a Canadian citizen in 1944. Not long after settling in Canada, Koerner began exhibiting his oil paintings and water colours. In 1954 Colin Graham noted of his work, ". . . When Mr. Koerner paints a picture . . . he deliberately 'discovers' his picture on the canvas as he goes along. One shape leads to another, one intuition to the next. To allow a particular form or shape to be freighted with meaning on a number of levels, reaching down perhaps toward the last accessible strata of the mind, he depicts it through metaphor, allusion, or analogy." 

During those early years in Vancouver Koerner exhibited his paintings at the Kelly Galleries and the Victoria Art Centre and was also busy creating murals for homes in West Vancouver. In 1956 the Vancouver Art Gallery held a one man show of his paintings and drawings which were described by Palette of The Province newspaper as follows, "His work is distinctive, thoughtful and poetic. Mr. Koerner makes liberal use of his imagination in his 24 paintings and does not confine himself entirely to any specific place or time. However, British Columbia has apparently inspired him and especially Vancouver and its lofty buildings, with reflections along the waterfront."

Impressed with this same show Mildred Thornton of the Vancouver Sun noted, "Shimmering light and color is seen in glistening sails, richly colored logs, boats and buildings in a fine panoramic canvas called 'Island Passage.' Monumental compositions built on block-like patterns are the basis for several city scenes. Some are in warm tones of yellow, red and brown. Others equally effective, are in cool, mysterious blues and greens. All are full of curious inner vitality."

In 1959 Koerner held his first one man show at Laing's and six months later he participated in a three man show at this same gallery with Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith. Pearl McCarthy noted, "New paintings by John Koerner form an important group in the showing … There are only four of these new Koerners, all nocturnes, but every one of them is a distinguished autographic piece, as different from his former canvases as they are from the world's myriad often repetitive landscape abstractions."

Reviewed in Canadian Art in the Spring issue, 1962, Abraham Rogatnick noted his transition as follows: "John Koerner was creating panoramas of remembered impressions of the cities of his European youth: Prague, Geneva, Paris. These soon merged with the mountains, trees and water of his West Coast adulthood; and, with the facing of the past, the overwhelming pressure of the British Columbia landscape brought a flood of canvases revealing a hypnotic obsession with the theme of a land mass floating in water, and backed by misty, hovering mountains expressed in small, orderly planes of colour. Koerner was now irrevocably a British Columbia painter. He had completely absorbed the new world around him, and it had absorbed him. From a montage type of composition, representing glimpses of the specific surrounding landscape, he moved gradually through abstract impressions of remembered landscapes, such as 'Coast Glitter (30)', until now he has become intrigued, not with the memory of land, water and mountain, but with the direct expression of a kind of landscape of mood, a land­scape of the soul which he calls 'Inscapes' . . . . Like the neatness of his back-of-the-house studio in its suburban setting, a great deal of control and structuring has always dominated his technique, from the Cézannesque planar discipline of his earlier compositions, to the small-stroked, embroidered quality of his 'Coast Glitter' series. Even in 'Freescape', which is related to the Inscape series, the 'freeness' of the idea is restrained by the parallel planes of colour, whose regularized rectangles emphasize the surprising sauciness of the one or two planes which dance away from the dominant axis."

His solo exhibit in Montreal at Galerie Agnes Lefort in 1964 was noted by Dorothy Pfeiffer as follows, "Beneath the relaxed manner of Koerner's technique lies carefully thought-out form and structure. Koerner's paintings do not fall apart, as do so many other contemporary semi-abstractions. The longer one looks at Koerner's works the more solidly built do they appear . . . . A contrast is provided by 'Burrard Inlet in 1872', a wintry reflection on those days when life was reduced to elementals. In this painting Koerner has left portions of his primed canvas unpainted, a device which adds considerably to the lonely coldness of the dock-side painting."

David Watmough noted surrealistic tendencies in his work in 1966 as follows, "Ostensibly we have a combination of oil and restricted collage - but the esthetic and metaphysical truth of these canvases is remote from a mere technical agility. By integrating small-scale realistic images of such things as flowers from seed packets, cauliflowers, fruit, etc., into an overall painterly commentary or inter­pretation of garden life, the surrealistic tenor is made known. The results are not only impressive but emerge as some of Koerner's most successful work to date . . . . But with such minor exceptions this new Koerner show triumphantly espouses the incorporation of a variety of novel trends - from hard edge to surrealism. All of it though inhabits the context of that pervasive European sensibility which hangs about Koerner's oeuvre in the manner of a subtle mist which even the harshest winds of contemporaneity cannot blow away." 

His metal mural "Star of Hope" constructed from anodized aluminum and measuring 28 feet by 16 feet, completed for the Cowichan District Hospital at Duncan, B.C., was described by Joan Lowndes as follows, "In the daytime the trees around filter the light, creating a constant play on the sparkling surface of the Star against its soft blue tile wall." She went on to explain, ". . . a gentle yellow light shines through quarter of an inch perforations which prick out shapes like snowflakes in the central disc, rimmed with two neon tubes . . . . The actual production of the mural took only six weeks. It was manufactured by Ted Scroggs, of Scroggs and Associates, Designers, illustrating the new alliance between studio and factory. The Star, beautifully proportioned, is simple yet effective, and achieves the purpose . . . of mitigating institutionalism." A retrospective of his work was held at the Douglas Gallery in 1968.

After retiring from teaching at the University of British Columbia, Koerner bought a house with a view across Burrard Inlet to Point Atkinson, which became the focus of his Lighthouse series which comprises today of over 115 works. By this time he had already completed three major series of work: Lost City (a nostalgic tribute to Prague), Coast Glitter (landscapes seen from the sea), and Compass Rose. These bodies of work were followed by “The Italian Series”, “the West County Set”, and “the Numbers motif” (inspired by a metal number 5 he found discarded in a back alley and reconfiguring it as an abstract form). The 1970s and 1980’s saw the development of a further three series which contained The Garden of Eden, the colorful African series, and The Pacific Gateway Series - consisting of over 312 visionary works depicting the temporal “arch from here-and-now to another world” and juxtaposing Canadian and Japanese landscapes. Koerner was commissioned to do various murals, the largest as a commemoration of Vancouver's Centennial in 1986 was installed in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Over the last 20 years John’s output has not waivered and in addition to continuing to explore many of the aforementioned series of work he also undertook the Balcony Series, The Still Life series, the Hikari Series, the Celebration Series, and the Cosmic Series. In each of these bodies of work John Koerner remains committed to the journey and the spiritual quest and through all his growth as an artist his work remains uniquely his own and this work is immediately identifiable. In writing about his legacy John states: “ Throughout theevolution of my work, the prime constants have been my commitment to our spiritual legacy and my endeavour to bear witness to it in everything I do.” We are fortunate to be able to celebrate this incredible life and as time marches onward the full scope of John Koerner’s legacy will come into better focus with the benefit of hindsight and his rightful place in the development of British Columbia’s rich art history will not only be secure but will be celebrated as one of the forces behind the rise of west coast modernism and a uniquely west coast aesthetic.