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An image of Man with the beard by Justin O'Brien
Alternate image of Man with the beard by Justin O'Brien

Justin O'Brien

(Australia, Italy 02 Aug 1917 – 17 Jan 1996)

Man with the beard
Other titles:
Head of a fellow Prisoner of War, Crete, WWII
Place of origin
Media category
Materials used
oil on cardboard (Red Cross packing case)

41.6 x 29.4 cm board; 52.6 x 40.5 cm frame

Signature & date
Signed and dated u.l. corner, black oil "JuSTIN O'BriEN/ 1943".
Gift of the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 2012
Accession number
© Estate of Justin O'Brien
Not on display
Further information

Justin O'Brien enlisted in the army in May 1940 – joining the 2/5 Australian General Hospital (AGH) as a medical orderly – and departed Sydney that October bound for the Middle East. In April 1941, following the German invasion, the 2/5 AGH was deployed to Greece. After the fall of Crete, the division was captured and taken to Kokkinia, above Athens, where O'Brien witnessed the appalling brutality of war.

In December 1941 he was transported by cattle train across Europe to Stalag XXA at Toruń (Thorn) in Poland. At the camp O'Brien joined the theatre troupe and set up an art class, where his students drew and painted one another. Fellow POWs included the painters Jesse Martin and Austen Deans, with whom he studied work by Post-Impressionist masters through books available in the camp's library. 'Man with the beard' was painted during O'Brien's internment in Poland, with the lessons of Cezanne and Van Gogh firmly established through his use of broken colour and impasto brushwork.

Bibliography (2)

Macquarie Galleries, An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Jesse Martin and Justin O'Brien, Sydney, 1944. 21; priced 12 guineas; not paginated

Natalie Wilson, Justin O'Brien: the sacred music of colour, ‘Justin O’Brien & the art of transfiguration’, pg. 23-156, Sydney, 2010, 29, 31 (colour illus.), 157.

Exhibition history (4)

An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Jesse Martin and Justin O'Brien (1944), Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 01 Mar 1944–13 Mar 1944

The Herald exhibition of Australian present-day art, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 13 Feb 1945–27 Feb 1945

Colonial to Contemporary Art, Lawson-Menzies, Sydney, 06 Dec 2007 -

Justin O'Brien: the sacred music of colour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 18 Dec 2010–27 Feb 2011