Having witnessed the Great Famine in German occupied Greece – which resulted in the death of over 300 000 people – one memory remained vivid for O'Brien. Officers in the Kokkinia prison camp had gained permission to attend to Allied war graves in a nearby cemetery. As they approached, O'Brien noticed a woman towing a billycart containing the dead body of her baby. Corpses were stacked in piles around the graveyard.
Greek burial is one of the earliest works by the artist through which he recounts this incident, exemplifying his decision that he was only able to address such an event symbolically. Greek Orthodox priests wearing distinctive, chimney shaped 'kamelavkion' move with surreal, hieratic deliberation, burying the dead in shallow graves across the stony ground.
The Greek Burial
oil on canvas on hardboard
88.8 x 65.0 cm board; 105.0 x 82.5 x 3.3 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed u.r. corner, dark blue oil "O'BRIEN". Not dated.
Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 2002
Not on display
© Estate of Justin O'Brien
Shown in 4 exhibitions
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 (1987), S.H. Ervin Gallery, The Rocks, 06 Aug 1987–30 Aug 1987
Justin O'Brien: the sacred music of colour (2010), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 18 Dec 2010–27 Feb 2011
Referenced in 20 publications
Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2002, 'Year in review', pg. 8-25, Sydney, 2002, 24.
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, 'Seeing God in still life', Melbourne, 21 Nov 1987.
Justin O'Brien and friends: A birthday celebration, Sydney, 1987. cat.no. 5
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.
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, 'Exhibition by Justin O'Brien', Sydney, 24 Oct 1947.
John Hetherington., Age, '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, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Justin O'Brien is our Renaissance man', pg. 75, Sydney, 05 Dec 1985, 75.
John McDonald, National times on Sunday, 'Return of a truer Byzantium?', pg. 29, Sydney, 19 Oct 1986, 29.
Catalogue for the Inaugural Exhibition by the Merioola Group of Sydney, Melbourne, 1947. cat.no. 22; Kindly lent by Mrs Mary Tooth.
Tatlock Miller., Art and design, '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, 'Christian art of J. O'Brien', Sydney, 23 Oct 1947.
Tatlock Miller., Exhibition of oils and drawings by Justin O'Brien, 'Foreword', Sydney, 1947. cat.no. 21; Kindly lent by Mrs Mary Tooth
Barry Pearce, Look, 'Death in Greece; the experience that transformed Justin O'Brien', pg. 24-25, Sydney, Dec 2002-Jan 2003, 24, 25 (colour illus.).
Barry Pearce, Look: 1953-2003 celebrating 50 years, 'Presenting our own artists: how the AGS put balance into the Australian collection', pg. 42-44, Sydney, May 2003, 44.
Barry Pearce, Look, 'Justin O'Brien: Two promises fulfilled', pg. 34, Sydney, Nov 2009, 34, 35 (colour illus.).
Barry Pearce, Justin O'Brien: the sacred music of colour, 'Love, mysticism and methodology', pg. 15-20, Sydney, 2010, 10 (colour illus.), 16, 23, 38, 56, 158, 164. cat.no. 20
Jill Skyes, Look, 'Completing the circle: a retrospective for Justin O'Brien', pg. 29-31, Sydney, Dec 2010-Jan 2011, 31.
Justin O'Brien catalogue supplement, Sydney, 2010, 10. cat.no. 20