An image of Portrait of Wally Smith

Justin O'Brien

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

Portrait of Wally Smith

Other titles:
Head of a fellow Prisoner of War, Crete, WWII, Man with the beard
Not on display
Further information

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.

Place of origin
Toruń, Poland
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
Accession number
© Estate of Justin O'Brien