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Mystery in the ordinary

JUSTIN O'BRIEN. Image and Icon. By Christine France. Crafts man House. Illust. 129pp. $49.95.



DURING the 1940s and 50s

Justin O'Brien's strongly individualistic work stood

out among his contemporaries. In 1951. his Virgin Enthroned be came the first winner of The Blake Prize fur "ihr.t i.ho!i>-0 be both r:iiyio>'.-: a.i-j beautiful". 1

remember n-r.rvv-lling n the thai here was a paintiiig which ap peared to be both modern and Byz antine at the same time and that this marriage worked.

Publication of this book coin cides with the artist's 70ih birth day, and a recent retrospective at The National Gallery of Victoria. Thirty-two colour plates (the Vir gin Enthroned is Plate 7) and 21 black-and-white reproductions at test to the fact that a predilection toward style has remained central to this artist's work. Two formalist themes dominate. Image and Icon, as a title, is spot on.

Even in his paintings of the par ticular a strong sense of timeless ness persists. The haphazard (two abandoned sandals on a floor, an apparently carelessly opened book), the incidental (a lamb ap pearing over a hillside, a wrap thrown across a chair) seem pre-ar ranged; he invests the ordinary

with mystery.

One can only describe O'Brien's colour as metallic. It is as though gold leal has floated off from his frames to settle, not only on the halo of an angel, but on a fruit pod, the seat of a cane chair, a grassy hillside. Gold dust makes the very flesh of his portraits opaque. His blues are astonishing, as are those of early Renaissance artists. His reds seem suspended in an amphi theatre ofcontrived space.

How did such an artist emerge in Australia during a time when "nationalistic naturalism" still, to a large extent, prevailed? On such matters this book is informative

and there is an e.\icdmnc bib*«ugra phy. . ,

We learn thai O'Brien s re

sponse to life around him as an artist owes much to his Catholic

upbringing, and perhaps, in partic

ular to exposure to a Sydney group of Catholic intellectuals and aesth etes, calling themselves The Fra Aryj'Hro Guild, who kepi in touch with modern movements abroad.

! '.u-ivsiin;lt.■ uivh thisg- jup O'Brien bee;, in'.: oi ihe work of Father Couturier urn.! J-jtiter R. gamy of France; they began the journal Art Sacre and were to in

volve modern artists in the con struction of Notre Dame de Toute

Justin O'Brien, self-portrait, oil on board, a black and white

illustration from Justin O'Brien. Image and Icon.

Gracc at Assy in Haute Savoie, and the Matisse Chapel in Vence.

In 1944, following three-and-a half years as a prisoner of war, O'Brien returned to Sydney, where he became a resident artist among other artists at an old mansion   Merioola, in Woollahra. This inner- city group, subsequently to be called the Sydney Charm School, had little in common but a leaning, one way or another, toward the


The war years, nursing and teaching, strengthened rather than arrested O'Brien's artistic develop ment. With Jesse Martin, a fellow prisoner-of-war, he was accorded the honour of being the first re turned serviceman to have an ex hibition hung by The Macquarie Galleries. A long association of 11 one man shows — followed.

Later, O'Brien visited London, where works by Piero della Francc sca, Raphael, El Greco and Velas quez were on loan. A pilgrimage to Siena, which acquainted him first hand with the work of Duccio, capped his overseas experiences.

That O'Brien should become an expatriate seemed ordaineci. He functions as an artist within a strong framework of his own mak ing. He lives abroad because, he says, "I work better." The islands of Lesbos and Skyros, Greek, Ro man and Byzantine cities, feel to him like home. Hittite, Babylo nian and Assyrian experiences move him as life in Australia


This book is a celebration of the fact that we have an Australian born artist who concentrates on something other than "drought, desert and disaster". Like Ce zanne, Matisse and Rouault, not to mention some of his favourite ear ly Renaissance artists, O'Brien im agery manages to combine the iconic and the everyday.

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