Oil Paintings

O'Brien, Justin

Justin O’Brien was born in Sydney’s south west in 1917 into a deeply religious Irish Catholic family, the third of five surviving children. It was his mother, Teresa Mary, who nurtured her children’s creative talents and instilled in them her spiritual heritage. School was tedious for O’Brien and he escaped its confines early to study art full-time, becoming a teacher of the craft when his peers were still sitting for exams.

According to Barry Pearce, who knew the artist well: ‘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.

‘But above all he yearned for an answer to the big question concerning a transcendental existence. His answer came, not through religion, but an aesthetic, manifested in the intense music of his colour, its harmonies and dissonances; and by the inventiveness of his design.’

‘At the same time,’ says co-curator Natalie Wilson, ‘parallel to the richness of his art is a remarkable story of compassion and respect shared between the artist and the people he encountered throughout his life. O’Brien was captured by the German army at the beginning of World War Two and spent almost three years in a prison camp; firstly near Athens, then Toruń, Poland. Here his camaraderie, his humour and his gift for lifting the spirits of fellow prisoners became legendary.’

After the war, O’Brien’s teaching at Sydney’s Cranbrook School also became renowned and many of his students went on to become practising artists. One ex-student, Martin Sharp, has described him as his ‘art father’ because of his fervent belief that the study and practice of art was a genuine doorway to fulfilment.

Justin O’Brien died in 1996 in Rome, the city that had been his home and spiritus locus for three decades. His passing was mourned by all who knew him; friends, family and countless pupils. He died with singular pride that the Vatican, centre of his faith from which he had drifted and returned to, had acquired one of his paintings, The raising of Lazarus, for permanent display in its galleries of modern art.

The Art Gallery of NSW will be the only venue for this long-awaited survey of a much-admired artist, and the first retrospective held at a major state gallery since 1987.

View from the Studio, Rome. c 1974

View from the Studio, Rome. c 1974

O'Brien, Justin

c 1974

Oil on paper on board

48 cm x 32 cm


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