Australian artist Justin Maurice O’Brien was born in Hurstville, New South Wales in 1917 and studied art under Edward Smith. O’Brien is best known for his colourful and exuberant depictions of religious themes inspired by his biblical knowledge and the faith from which he had drifted; and to which he later returned.
O’Brien served with the Australian Army Medical Corps during World War II and in 1940 was sent to Palestine and Greece. He was taken prisoner at Ekali, Greece and after 6 months in Athens, was sent to Torun in Poland, where he arrived on New Year’s Eve, 1941. In 1944, O’Brien was among those sent to Barcelona in exchange for German prisoners; and after returning to Australia, he was demobilized. During his period as prisoner, O’Brien studied Byzantine art as expressed in religious iconography. On his return to Sydney, the pictures painted in Torun formed the nucleus of an exhibition which he shared with another ex-prisoner Jesse Martin.
O’Brien was the inaugural winner of the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1951 and his painting The raising of Lazarus was acquired by the Vatican. His commanding use of colour and form is displayed in the sumptuous detail of his still lifes, portraits and landscapes. Many of his portraits are of students, painted during his 20 years as art master at the Cranbrook School in Sydney; and of fellow prisoners during his internment in Greece and Poland in WWII. They portray the remarkable story of compassion and respect shared between the artist and the people he encountered throughout his life.
- A recent survey – Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour was the first major retrospective of his work since 1987; and the first since his death, in 1996. The survey contained 90 paintings, watercolours and drawings; some of which had not been seen in public for more than 60 years.
O’Brien’s art is represented in the collections at The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the University of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and the National Gallery of Victoria.
- According to Barry Pearce, Head Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW – “O’Brien loved people, loved drawing and painting portraits and ensembles of figures and telling stories through time-honoured themes. He illuminated through a deep biblical knowledge basic questions of the human condition played out like a sort of timeless medieval procession”.
O’Brien can certainly illuminate art through his “Sacred Music of Colour“
“Is It Art?”