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Australian art

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Portrait of Wally Smith



Justin O'Brien

Australia, Italy

02 Aug 1917 - 17 Jan 1996


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. Deans diary entry for 31 January 1943 states:

'Very good day today. Justin painted a glorious, exquisite head, in pearly flesh(?) red hat, green scarf, ochre ground. ... Justin's head was of Wally Smith.'

This portrait displays the lessons of Cezanne and Van Gogh firmly established, through O'Brien's use of broken colour and impasto brushwork.


Other Titles

Head of a fellow Prisoner of War, Crete, WWII

Man with the beard

Place where the work was made

Toruń Poland



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


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Justin O'Brien

Works in the collection


Shown in 5 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 2 publications


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.