The Biennale of Sydney was created in 1973 as an international showcase for contemporary art. Conceived, invented and financially supported by Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, it grew out of the Transfield Art Prize for contemporary Australian art (an acquisitive prize which reached its peak in the1960s). It operated for about a dozen years before Transfield decided to transform what was originally a local initiative, into an international exhibition.
From the beginning Franco Belgiorno-Nettis aimed to encourage creativity as well as change the attitudes of Australians towards recent art. He felt that the inventiveness of new art would energize the broader community and encourage innovation and creativity. The Biennale of Sydney, which he modeled on the successful Venice Biennale, was a way of opening up Australia to the cultural world, at a time when it remained relatively undiscovered. Primary among his aims was to encourage communication and dialogue, as well as build links between Australia and other countries.
In 1973 the Biennale of Sydney held its first modest exhibition of thirty-seven artists in the exhibition hall of the new Sydney Opera House and the event was opened with fanfare by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Daniel Thomas, Senior Curator and Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales made the selection of artists with the help of the Visual Arts Board of the Australian Council for the Arts for the arts. Artists from fifteen countries took part, over half of them being from nations in the Asia Pacific region. Biren De (Bangladesh), Affandi (Indonesia), Minami Tada (Japan), Park Suk Won (South Korea), Joseph Tan (Malaysia), William Sutton and Colin McCahon (New Zealand), Solomon Saprid (Philippines) and Sawasadi Tantisuk (Thailand) all exhibited their work in Australia for the first time. This recognition of the links between Asia and Australia, and showcasing of Asian contemporary art within a wider western context, was decades ahead of its time and is now regarded as a visionary.
International artists work was shown in concert with Australian artists such as: David Aspden, George Baldessin, Sydney Ball, John Brack, Robert Brown, John Coburn, Kevin Connor, Gunter Christmann, Fred Cress, John Firth Smith, John Hopkins, Bob Jenyns, Clive Murray White, Roger Kemp, Ian McKay, Robert Klippel, Ron Robertson Swann, John Olsen, Peter Powditch, Roland Schlicht, Fred Williams, Dick Watkins and David Wilson.
The work of Emil Schumacher, Renato Guttuso, Antonio Pelaez, Patrick Heron, and Clyfford Still completed the exhibition. The iconic Sydney Opera House remained a key venue for the subsequent Biennales.
Extract from the inaugural Biennale of Sydney (1973) exhibition catalogue on the first Biennale of Sydney poster:
John Coburn, a leading painter and one of Australia’s foremost designers, was commissioned to design the first Biennale of Sydney poster which is also the cover of this catalogue. He has recently become famous for his tapestries and in particular the Opera House curtains. These two immense tapestries were commissioned in 1969 and now hang in the Opera Theatre and the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.
He was born at Ingham in Queensland in 1925, studied at East Sydney Technical College from 1974 to 1950 and taught there from 1959 to 1966. He also taught in Canberra for a short period but in 1969 found it necessary to move to France with his family in order to work more closely with the weavers of Panton Frères for whom he was designing tapestries. It was shortly after he had moved to France that his designs were selected for the Opera House curtains and for the next two years he was engaged in fulfilling this commission at the Ausbosson workshops. He is presently Head of the National Art School in Sydney.
Since 1957 he has had 27 one-man exhibitions of paintings and tapestries and has taken part in many exhibitions in other countries including London, Paris, Tokyo, Brazil and Canada. He is represented in several collections including the Vatican Museum, Rome, the John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts, Washington, all Australian State Galleries and the Australian National Collection, Canberra.