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Justin O'Brien

1917 – 1996

Justin O'Brien (1917-1996) was one of the major Australian artists of his generation. He studied with Edward Smith between 1930 and 1936. During the Second World War, he served in Palestine and Greece before being captured at Ekali and interned firstly in Athens and then Torun in Poland. In 1944 he was among a group of prisoners of war sent to Barcelona in exchange for German prisoners and soon after returned to Australia to be demobilised. During captivity O'Brien studied and was inspired by the Byzantine art of the countries in which he was held and this influenced his own art practice. The pictures he managed to paint in Torun, with materials supplied by the Red Cross, formed the nucleus of his first Australian exhibition, held in Sydney with another ex-prisoner, Jesse Martin. The Byzantine influence, which gave his early work individuality and style, also informed his mature painting. After the war he taught at Cranbrook School, before moving to Rome in 1967. He returned to Australia with exhibitions every two years. A contemporary of Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart and Donald Friend, O'Brien's work is represented in State and University collections throughout Australia and in the National Gallery of Australia, as well as the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome. In 1987 the National Gallery of Victoria curated a major retrospective exhibition of his work.

Updated 2018