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.
Head of a fellow Prisoner of War, Crete, WWII
Man with the beard
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
© Estate of Justin O'Brien
Shown in 5 exhibitions
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 (2010), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 18 Dec 2010–27 Feb 2011
Margaret's Gifts, S.H. Ervin Gallery, The Rocks, 04 Jan 2020–22 Mar 2020
Referenced in 2 publications
Macquarie Galleries, An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Jesse Martin and Justin O'Brien, Sydney, 1944. cat.no. 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.