Art Essays

Justin O’Brien

Published January 22, 2011
Justin O'Brien, Nativity c1949–50, oil on canvas, laid on cardboard

Thinking of Justin O’Brien my memory flies back to a day in Rome when I was taking “Justin’s tour” with his old friend and fellow expatriate, Jeffrey Smart. As we approached the church of Sant’Agostino, which contains works by Caravaggio and Raphael, we were met with a blast of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. A funeral procession burst forth from the church at breakneck speed, spearheaded by black-suited pallbearers carrying a magnificent coffin. In what seemed like seconds the casket was deposited in the hearse, the church emptied, and the music abruptly terminated. With barely a pause, Justin led us into the now deserted church for a leisurely examination of the paintings.
I was startled by this apparition, but had a vision of O’Brien (1917-96) being as calm and imperturbable as the figures in his paintings. It may not necessarily have been true, but it is a nice way to remember a painter who cuts a unique figure in the history of Australian art. A dramatic memento mori at the doors of Sant’Agostino made little impression on a man whose work was focused on transcendental things.
This is the impression one gets from Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour, his long-awaited retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW. No Australian artist since Adelaide Ironside (1831-67) has been more dedicated to religious subjects, or shown such devotion to the art of the Italian Renaissance. Like Ironside, O’Brien would die in Rome, the home of the Catholic Church that he had embraced and rejected while never removing himself from its influence. Throughout his life he would continue to paint traditional Catholic motifs, attend the Pope’s public addresses and read the Vatican newspaper.

Ironside’s promising career was cut short by tuberculosis, but O’Brien would reach the respectable age of 79 – plenty of time to experience the full spectrum of triumphs and failures that give shape to an artist’s career. A warm and charming personality, O’Brien made friends easily and kept many of them for life. As a painter he was a stubborn, solitary figure who followed his own path regardless of the turbulence of twentieth century art.
He was always a success in life even if his work looked like an anachronism. This meant that he sold most of his paintings to private collectors, being snubbed by public galleries that followed the fashions. O’Brien’s 1968 exhibition at Macquarie Galleries was greeted with pre-dawn queues, and by 10.30 that morning all 41 works had sold. Curator, Natalie Wilson, is right to point out this was also the year that the National Gallery of Victoria opened its new building on St. Kilda Road with The Field – a landmark survey of cutting-edge abstract art. During the reign of late Modernist styles O’Brien’s pictures were proposed for acquisition by public galleries and rejected. When the Art Gallery of NSW acquired Venus No.1 in 1988 it was the first O’Brien painting the Trustees had purchased in 31 years.
That breakthrough acquisition owes a debt to Barry Pearce, the AGNSW’s long-serving – and long-suffering – Curator of Australian Art who has recently announced his retirement. The O’Brien retrospective is Pearce’s swan song and the fulfillment of a promise that he would do justice to an artist for whom he admits to having no sense of objectivity.
Even though it has taken much longer than he would have hoped, Pearce has honoured his pledge. While a show of less than a hundred works can never pretend to be comprehensive, all the artist’s different phases are represented, along with the key works and a selection of important, lesser-known ones, including a Stations of the Cross (c.1959-61) made for Francis Xavier Cabrini Hospital in Melbourne. Jeffrey Smart told Pearce these were O’Brien’s “supreme masterworks”, and, hyperbole aside, he may well be right. The delicate ink and wash pictures are typically mannered in their elongated forms and blank expressions, but they are impressive in the way they marry economy of line to an undeniable depth of feeling.
O’Brien was born in Hurstville, to an Irish Catholic family, and was taking full-time art lessons by the age of 14. The earliest works in this exhibition – a still life and self-portrait painted – reveal an artist who had already mastered the basics of his craft. Incidentally, Peter Fitzsimmons will be dismayed to find that in this early self-portrait, O’Brien had already pioneered the peculiar idea of wearing a red handkerchief on one’s head.
O’Brien volunteered for war service and was sent as a medical orderly to Greece where he witnessed bloodshed and famine, including the indelible image of bodies being pitched into mass graves. He became a prisoner of war in Greece and was later transferred to a camp in Torun, Poland. Here he became friends with other POW artists and took an interest in the work of Modernists such as Matisse, Picasso, Derain, and almost certainly, Modigliani. The pictures he completed in Torun are mostly portraits, each face looking gaunt and haunted.

Freed from the Stalag by a prisoner-of-war exchange, O’Brien found himself back in Sydney, where he saw out his service in the surgical wards at Concord hospital. He had sampled the horrors of war and glimpsed the future of art. The style in which he now began to work was symbolic rather than naturalistic, depicting Biblical subjects in bright, garish colours with scraped surfaces. His figures were unnaturally lean and as two-dimensional as the staffage in Egyptian tomb paintings. Robert Hughes memorably described them as looking as though they had been squeezed from toothpaste tubes.
It’s important to recognise that these features were deliberate aesthetic decisions. O’Brien could have painted in a more realistic manner had he so desired, but was trying to develop a distinctive visual language. He was influenced by Derain and Matisse, but also by Sienese painting of the fourteenth century and by Piero della Francesca.
In 1951 his triptych, The Virgin Enthroned, won the inaugural Blake Prize for religious art. Along with this celebrated picture we can also view a drawing that shows the elaborate geometrical framework upon which O’Brien built his composition. The geometry owes a debt to Piero but the blue expanse of water that frames the Virgin’s throne is O’Brien’s homage to Sydney Harbour.
O’Brien taught art at Cranbrook for many years, inspiring a group of students that included Martin Sharp, John Montefiore and Peter Kingston. His portraits of Sharp and Montefiore are included in this show, but portraiture was only ever a sideline. At the end of 1954, after much soul-searching brought on by the death of his mother, O’Brien renounced his faith. In the years that followed he would also accept that he was homosexual, although he remained far from comfortable in his own skin.
All these acceptances and renunciations seemed to make O’Brien’s work more not less religious. By 1967 he had left Cranbrook and Australia behind, settling in Rome, where he found his spiritual home. He had never felt any desire to paint the Australian landscape but was drawn to the stark beauty of the Greek islands, and to the hills of Tivoli and Tuscany.
In his work from the 1960s onwards he found a new clarity and simplicity. His colour became more harmonious, and his figures grew an extra dimension, although they retained the deadpan expressions preferred by the Renaissance masters. Perhaps the outstanding painting of this period is The Dormition of the Virgin (1961), in which the most striking colours mesh together in a way never matched in his earlier work.
The other paintings that stay in one’s mind are three works from 1977-78 of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. The most graceful drawing is set against a sky of gold leaf and a sea he described as “blue milk”. His draughtsmanship is even more impressive in Tuscan Landscape (c.1984) an immaculate ink and wash drawing dominated by two spindly trees. There is more simple devotion in the way he has drawn these trees than in a room full of set-piece religious paintings.
Ultimately I have to be a little more objective than Barry Pearce and suggest that O’Brien’s religious paintings aspire to a transcendence that is rarely achieved. By succumbing so wholeheartedly to the art of another age he does not present a living version of Jesus, Mary and the saints but a series of figures in fancy dress. His paintings are attractive but they are not convincing.
Think of an artist such as Colin McCahon who not only lost his faith but lost the images as well, filling his late paintings with crudely daubed quotations from the Old Testament. McCahon’s late pictures may be ugly but they are also incredibly powerful. By contrast, O’Brien abandoned his faith but kept all the trappings, like the façade of a temple from which the contents had been removed. In these serene, often beautiful works one may see that he loved the style but could no longer believe in the substance.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, January 22, 2011
Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour, Art Gallery of NSW
Until 27 Februrary.