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A Brush with Life

By John Koerner

Review By Sandra Paikowsky

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 153 Spring 2007  | p. 132-4

A Brush with Life narrates the career of John Koerner, a Czechborn artist who has worked in Vancouver for over sixty years. He taught painting and drawing in the city from 1953 to 1962 and has amassed a lengthy exhibition record in several Canadian and international centres. Koerner’s images of nature, especially real and imagined landscapes inspired by the BC coastline, show loose affinities with School of Paris painting and collage as well as Japanese aesthetics. While his work revisits the original condition of abstraction within the visual vocabulary of representation, Koerner seems most at home with the horizontal format privileged by view painters, even when he treats the theme of the still-life.

A Brush with Life is a combination of autobiography and memoir – the former in the traditional guise of telling a life and the latter in discursions through several chapters that recount that life. Autobiography is always a tricky business as it battles between subjectivity and objectivity, assembling and disassembling, suppression and confession. Koerner’s book also points to one of the conundrums of the selftold story: the desire for recognition of one’s talents and accomplishments, and the refashioning of the past to serve the needs of the present.

It is such hybridity that marks the content of his essays as individual chapters overlap and chronology takes a back seat to a mélange of disparate recollections and opinions. Koerner uses his first chapter to write what is familiarly known as an artist’s statement and separates himself from modern West Coast paint ing by aligning his work to the writings of Bô Yin Râ, the pseudonym of the German-born mystic-philosopher Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken (1863- 1943). In describing the influences that shaped his approach to painting, both aesthetic and spiritual, Koerner slides from one theme to another to provide an overview of what he calls “the lessons” of his work. These lessons are repeated in the ensuing chapters and sustain the same superficiality of analysis that marks the publication.

The next essay, “Being,” is the only text that functions as traditional autobiography, recounting his early childhood in Czechoslovakia; his first visit to France and Italy; his family’s removal to Paris in 1937 because of warnings of a Nazi invasion; and then, two years later, when he was twenty-six, the move to Vancouver, where his uncle Otto already had interests in the forestry business. Within this rather cursory narrative, Otto is the most interesting figure because of his early interest in West Coast native art. Although Koerner is perfectly positioned to provide a first-hand account of the Vancouver art community from the early 1940s to the present, the rest of the chapter is deeply unsatisfying. While the details of his own family life are obvious, one expects some serious attention to his relationships with other artists, beyond a listing of personalities. Part of the pleasure of good autobiography is the light it shines on others in the narrator’s circle. For example, while Koerner regrets the lack of appreciation given to B.C. Binning, he offers nothing of substance beyond the comment that “he produced distinctly personal statements.”

All the chapters in which disclosure is replaced by description are similarly shallow. His reading of art history in “Is Change Permanent” is somewhat mangled; and it is difficult to accept that, immediately following the Renaissance, “artists explored modes that were not as representational and, therefore, not as easy to read,” even as a few sentences later Chardin is mentioned in the same breath as Titian. The rest of his art historical discourse is just as muddled and is followed by an equally naive discussion of modern science. The reader would have been better served by a more profound discussion of Koerner’s own work and of the tensions and decisions that are inherent to the production of art. Throughout the text he evokes the thought of Bô Yin Râ and concludes with an excerpt from the latter’s Book of the Living God, although Koerner does not explain his selection of that particular text

The most satisfying aspect of the book is its lavish full-page illustrations, along with the smaller images inserted into the text, which take up almost half the publication. Koerner’s centrally placed “Portfolio” of pictures offers an important survey of his work, especially for readers less familiar with his career. The images are grouped by title, with the majority drawn from the Pacific Gateway Series. While this is an interesting alternative to the chronological ordering of reproductions in most “life and work” books, it leaves the reader to flip pages back and forth to construct a more systematic overview of Koerner’s approach(es) to his landscape and garden themes. Canadian art is still insufficiently published, and, for that reason, this visual catalogue of John Koerner’s images will be of lasting value. Koerner’s written contribution to the ongoing construction of a biography of Canadian art, and particularly to the story of Vancouver, is another matter.