It seems extraordinary that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained in complete obscurity for more than half a century following his death in Leipzig in 1750. Regarded, except by a few specialists, as simply a conservative, mathematical curiosity confined within the demands of his Christian church, the wider musical universe of Europe made no acknowledgement of his achievement in purely musical terms. That is, until the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn exploded a baffling ignorance by conducting Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829.
Possibly Justin O’Brien, an Australian painter with exquisite gifts as a colourist in the twentieth century might have suffered a similar ignominy, thought merely an illustrator of biblical themes. Moreover, notwithstanding his Catholic faith being shaken by experience as a prisoner of war, then the death of his beloved Irish mother in 1953, his career as an artist coincided with the near annihilation of figuration well into the late 1960s.
Indeed, were it not for the creation of the Blake Prize for religious art, for which O’Brien was the inaugural winner in 1951, the odds of modernism could have worked more pronouncedly against him, in spite of his exceptional knowledge of, and sympathies for, French Post-Impressionism.
But certain passionate supporters kept his motivation alive against a burgeoning secular mainstream. O’Brien himself declared, ‘the religious experience should not be confused with the spiritual experience, for the latter can be expressed through many subjects, like a vase of flowers.’1
Meanwhile, his earlier supporters in Sydney had already articulated how there was much more to the artist’s vision than mere biblical illustration.
Harry Tatlock Miller (1913-1989) wrote in 1947, ‘Palpitating with kaleidoscopic patterns of harmonies and dissonances of colour, the massed effect of Justin O’Brien’s painting is like an incessant madrigal which stimulates to the point of intoxication.’2
In 1950, James Gleeson (1915-2008) wrote, ‘The canvas is saturated with colour, yet never spills over into chaos, for the control is assured and complete. O’Brien uses colour as a composer uses sound.’3
Such passionate championship enabled him to hold fast to a unique projection of ecstatic serenity, lest it become completely eclipsed by a tsunami of non-objective abstraction.
By 1967 however, O’Brien knew he must leave Australia and live in an environment that better suited his sensibilities. He needed to be in constant touch with his paradigms, such as paintings of the great Renaissance Italians in churches chapels and museums, and above all, Duccio’s masterful Maesta in Siena, as well as the Flemish and Spanish artists he admired and carefully studied.
After to-ing and fro-ing between Greece, Italy and Australia he finally settled in his perfect genius loci, Rome, where he remained the rest of his life. ‘Rome, to me,’ he declared, ‘is the ideal European city to return to after visiting more strange lands. It is like coming home…It surrounds me with the past I feel is part of my own heritage…’ And it was there he found his ideal family.4
A few weeks before his death on 17 January 1996, this writer stayed with O’Brien at his flat in Via Orazio 12, a stone’s throw from the Castel Sant’Angelo. Close friends knew he did not have long left. Jeffrey Smart (1821-2013), fellow expatriate artist living in Tuscany, urged attention to how Justin set out his palette, indicative of a tenacious authority for architectonic potential and vibrating mosaics of shape and colour that distinctively stamped his painterly language.
On the question of influence, Margaret Olley (1923-2011) suggested asking the artist what painting by anyone in particular would he imagine to accompany him at the moment he finally met his le bon Dieu.
He responded without hesitation: Piero’s Madonna del Prato, a fresco which had survived two earthquakes and eventually cleaned and restored in a new home built for it in Monterchi just a few years before O’Brien passed away. He was especially thrilled to have seen Piero’s masterpiece first-hand returned to its original glory. It was very close to his heart.
Indeed, this sublime fresco could easily have served as a direct inspiration for O’Brien’s own Madonna c1959, currently presented here for auction. Painted about the same time O’Brien was preparing a magnificent suite of watercolour drawings on the Passion theme for the new chapel of Cabrini Hospital in Malvern, the Australian Madonna does not have Piero’s Rorschach-like simplicity. And the Virgin has by now given birth.
However, the basic principle of either composition is identical to the other; with a moving command of scale and Gothic symmetry, the head of the Virgin rising up in the centre of the picture space towards heaven, flanked by two angels of the Lord. In O’Brien’s case, these angels bear gifts of revelation, including on the floor a small box of trinkets and a tiny pet dog.
But this Madonna offers even more. Until now exposed publicly rarely since inclusion in a solo exhibition with Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1959, O’Brien invested his work with dazzling mystical patterns and stripes and shards of luminosity dispersed across the entire picture plane that place it clearly in our own time.5
If it is true that O’Brien intended his Madonna for a church in Heidelberg (possibly St John’s in Yarra Street), but defaulted because the church could not afford to pay, the chance was sadly missed for perhaps the artist’s greatest masterpiece now left in private hands to be accessible to all.
1. Justin O’Brien to Sasha Grishin, 18 January 1982, quoted in Pearce, B. & Wilson, N., Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2010, p.111
2. Ibid., p.86
4. Ibid., p.167, quote source unknown
5. Exhibition history: Macquarie Galleries, Sydney 25 November to 7 December 1959 (cat.18); 40th International Eucharistic Congress, St Paul’s Cathedral 1973; Retrospective catalogue 2010 (cat.46), op. cit.
Barry Pearce is Emeritus Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He is responsible for many exhibitions and publications and is the co-author of Justin O'Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour (2010) and the author of Donald Friend 1915-1989: A Retrospective (1990).