The young man leans forward in a relaxed pose, but he is lost in his own thoughts. His large eyes stare, as though he is observing us. Introspection not scrutiny, however, is the theme.
There is a delightful elegance to Justin O’Brien’s use of contour and colour. He loves his paints and holds them to their place by a strong sense of pattern making and decoration. The young man sits next to a famous Russian icon, symbolic of religious tradition, Andrei Rublev’s The Old Testament Trinity c.1408. His elongated face and hands, the folds of his jacket and trousers, are fixed in time, suspended without motion, a static image, an icon.
Justin O’Brien produced a series of portraits of boys and young men while he was Art Master at Cranbrook School in Sydney from 1946 to 1967. They are among his best works, peculiarly detached, his sitters objectified in eye-catching colours.
O’Brien had visited Europe and feasted on its galleries, especially the National Gallery, London. Traditions of religious painting inform Man in a red jacket. O’Brien was fascinated by the still, elegant precision displayed in the work of masters of Flemish art, Dieric Bouts and Gerard David, and also by the Italian Renaissance masters. He also had a close eye on his own century. Man in a red jacket is redolent of Modigliani, Brancusi and Balthus in its simplified realism.
Given his fascination with Italy and classical tradition, it is no surprise that O’Brien settled in Rome, spending time also in Greece. He had exhibitions regularly in Australia and he died in Rome in January 1996. Often under-appreciated, O’Brien’s work is unusual in Australian art, and evidence of a profound religious artistic sensibility.
Brian Kennedy 2002
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002