An image of Greek burial

Justin O'Brien

(Australia, Italy 02 Aug 1917 – 17 Jan 1996)

Greek burial

Other titles:
The Greek Burial
Not on display
Further information

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.

(circa 1947)
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
Accession number
© Estate of Justin O'Brien