(Australia, Italy 02 Aug 1917–17 Jan 1996)
88.8 x 65.0cm board; 105.0 x 82.5 x 3.3cm frame
The Gallery houses many masterpieces of Australian painting which are, by any measure, the consummate coalescence of an idea and its technical realisation. Some more than others, however, reveal a little more intimately, and tellingly, the essential ingredients of an unfolding vision. Justin O'Brien's 'Greek burial' is one such work. Underscored by the voice of a gentle genius, it contains passages of colour and shape by which everything that evolved henceforward in O'Brien's career may be tracked back to its source. It is the rubric of an artist's way forward, of his most fundamental revelation about becoming a painter.
'Greek burial' holds the key to the balancing act O'Brien would always perform between his religious self and the more secular joys of pure painting. Marrying Byzantine-style imagery with coloured forms reflecting an impact from the School of Paris, he explored with rubbed then repainted washes of oil across the tooth of the canvas, extravagant elongations and the simplest of palettes (red, green, yellow), the limit to which he could express his emotion about something he had witnessed; something deeply harrowing. For the idea behind this painting was born straight from a searing encounter of the Second World War.
Captured by invading German soldiers at a nursing hospital in Athens, where he had stayed back to look after the sick and wounded, O'Brien was about to be transported to a prison camp in Poland, when he and his colleagues asked permission from the Commanding Officer to make one final visit to the cemetery at nearby Kokkinia. They wished to pay respects to the Australian dead. There was an eerie silence as they passed through the village, whose streets were usually peopled by admirers wishing the Australians well. Entering the cemetery, he was profoundly moved to see a woman pushing a small cart containing a dead baby. Beyond were the corpses of emaciated villagers piled on top of each other, high-hatted Greek priests moving with surreal, hieratic deliberation, burying the dead in shallow graves across the stony ground; all like some daylight dream of a mysterious, unspoken catastrophe.
He wanted to paint this experience, but felt defeated by its enormity. He was not an expressionist, nor a social realist. He would have to wait until after the war, when the best he could do was sublimate it into a minimalist, Byzantine reconstruction; his shock and grief channelled through the burning music of his palette. It was a transformative moment, as he continued to refine a language that resonated in the detail of every painting and drawing of his ensuing career; a language entirely connected with private reveries about the spiritual matters and everyday subjects closest to his heart.
'Greek burial' was exhibited at the artist's first major solo exhibition at David Jones Gallery in 1947. It was purchased at that time by one of O'Brien's most loyal patrons, and has been in the same family until its acquisition by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2002 2002, 'Year in review', pg. 8-25, Domain, 2002, 24.
Anthony Bradley, The art of Justin O'Brien, Sydney, 1982, 16, 36, 37 (colour illus.), 98, 105. plate no. 4; titled 'The Greek burial'; dated c1947,
Gary Catalano., The Age 21 Nov 1987, 'Seeing God in still life', Melbourne, 21 Nov 1987.
Dinah Dysart (Editor), Justin O'Brien and friends: A birthday celebration 1987, Sydney, 1987. cat.no. 5
Christine France, Justin O'Brien: image and icon, Sydney, 1987, 11, 14, 21, 38, 39 (colour illus.), 126. plate no. 3; titled 'Greek burial'; dated c.1947.
Christine France, Justin O'Brien: image and icon, Sydney, 1997, 11, 14, 46, 47 (colour illus.), 168. plate no. 3; titled 'Greek burial'; dated c.1947
Our Art Critic (Paul Haefliger)., The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Oct 1947, 'Exhibition by Justin O'Brien', Sydney, 24 Oct 1947.
John Hetherington., Age 16 Dec 1961, 'Australian artists in profile. Justin O'Brien: his inspiration in Christian themes', Melbourne, 16 Dec 1961. NOTE: The painting titled 'The Greek Burial' described in this article is another version held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, however, the article describes the inspiration behind both versions of the work.
John McDonald, National times on Sunday 19 Oct 1986, 'Return of a truer Byzantium?', pg. 29, Sydney, 19 Oct 1986, 29.
John McDonald, The Sydney Morning Herald 05 Dec 1985, 'Justin O'Brien is our Renaissance man', pg. 75, Sydney, 05 Dec 1985, 75.
Tatlock Miller, Catalogue for the Inaugural Exhibition by the Merioola Group of Sydney 1947, Melbourne, 1947. cat.no. 22; Kindly lent by Mrs Mary Tooth.
Tatlock Miller., Art and design 1949, 'Recent paintings of Justin O'Brien', Sydney, 1949, 6 (illus.), 7. cat.no. 1; titled 'The Greek Burial'; Collection of Mrs Mary Tooth
Tatlock Miller., Sun 23 Oct 1947, 'Christian art of J. O'Brien', Sydney, 23 Oct 1947.
Tatlock Miller., Exhibition of oils and drawings by Justin O'Brien 1947, 'Foreword', Sydney, 1947. cat.no. 21; Kindly lent by Mrs Mary Tooth
Barry Pearce, Justin O'Brien: the sacred music of colour 2010, 'Love, mysticism and methodology', pg. 15-20, Sydney, 2010, 10 (colour illus.), 16, 23, 38, 56, 158, 164. cat.no. 20
Barry Pearce, Look Dec 2002-Jan 2003, 'Death in Greece; the experience that transformed Justin O'Brien', pg. 24-25, Newtown, Dec 2002-Jan 2003, 24, 25 (colour illus.).
Barry Pearce, Look: 1953-2003 celebrating 50 years May 2003, 'Presenting our own artists: how the AGS put balance into the Australian collection', pg. 42-44, Newtown, May 2003, 44.
Barry Pearce, Look Nov 2009, 'Justin O'Brien: Two promises fulfilled', pg. 34, Newtown, Nov 2009, 34, 35 (colour illus.).
Jill Skyes, Look Dec 2010-Jan 2011, 'Completing the circle: a retrospective for Justin O'Brien', pg. 29-31, Dec 2010-Jan 2011, 31.
Natalie Wilson, Justin O'Brien catalogue supplement 2010, Sydney, 2010, 10. cat.no. 20
Inaugural Exhibition by the Merioola Group of Sydney (1947):
Exhibition of oils and drawings by Justin O'Brien (1947), David Jones' Art Gallery, Sydney, Sydney, 23 Oct 1947–01 Nov 1947
Justin O'Brien and friends: a birthday celebration, S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 06 Aug 1987–30 Aug 1987
Justin O'Brien: the sacred music of colour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 18 Dec 2010–27 Feb 2011