Flowers signed 'O'BRIEN' upper right; inscribed 'FLOWERS No. 1' on verso oil on board 75.5 x 53.5cm (29 3/4 x 21 1/16in).
PROVENANCE Macquarie Galleries, Sydney Private collection Fine Australian Paintings, Edward Rushton Auctions, 27 October 1986, lot 711, 'Still Life' The Estate of the Late Mrs Jean Louise Hynes, Sydney
EXHIBITED Justin O'Brien, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 25 November - 7 December 1959, no.6 'Flower No. 1'
"Technique is always important. It is like writing a poem, you can't write a poem unless you know something about language and grammar."1
Justin O'Brien (1917 - 1996) was a master technician. He believed that art has "fundamental reference points whereby the elements of line, form and colour can be used as a poetic expression of that which is deeply felt or spiritual, irrespective of the time and place in which it was created."2
Born in Sydney in 1917, O'Brien's life was tempered by his experiences as a prisoner of war in Greece and Poland. Upon his return to Australia in the forties O'Brien joined the creative circle at Merioola, a refuge for artists, dancers and musicians in Sydney's Woollahra. For five years, O'Brien lived and worked with iconic Australian modernist artists such as Donald Friend (1915 - 1989), Loudon Sainthill (1918 - 1969) and Margaret Olley (1923 - 2011). Merioola exposed O'Brien to a diverse and multidisciplinary range of attitudes toward art, and instigated his departure from his academic training. This time was immensely productive for O'Brien evidenced by his many solo exhibitions.
O'Brien's war experiences had a profound effect on his choice of subject matter. "He disliked angst in painting, saying he had seen enough suffering in the world and would rather paint flowers than Hiroshima."3 O'Brien's friendship with Olley also had a major influence over his stylistic musings at this pivotal time in his career. Olley's oeuvre is dominated by her love of the still-life as a subject, namely familiar interiors and flower arrangements, and O'Brien began to paint similar subjects around this time.
Flowers is a harmony of tone, colour and symmetry a testament to O'Brien's dedication to technical perfection and his interest in distilling the essential qualities of his subject. O'Brien here paints an arrangement of Australian native flowers, presented in a ceramic vase. The composition and choice of arrangement is highly accomplished. O'Brien faithfully represents the anatomical details of every flower with compelling accuracy. The arrangement is set against a background divided into three distinct blocks of colour. The vase sits atop a horizontal panel of rich orange that bleeds into a more violet tone around the base. The backdrop is yellow, a wonderful compliment to the pastel tones of the flowers themselves. On the right hand side of the painting there is a thin vertical strip of green tempered with orange hues. This strip widens where it meets the horizontal panel on which the flower arrangement sits. The three panels of colour combined give a sense of perspective to the painting. This is a tremendously effective compositional tool that allows O'Brien to anchor the flower arrangement without the need for other visual cues most obviously a table. The flowers are the subject and O'Brien uses the rest of the composition to support his subject without distracting from it.
"His search for beauty, his search for stillness, the intimate and the ideal"4 is what unifies his oeuvre which comprises the still-life works together with landscapes, portraits and religious works.
1 Justin O'Brien cited in France, C., 'Justin O'Brien', Art and Australia, Volume 33, No.4, Winter 1996, p.482 2 France, C., Justin O'Brien, Image and Icon, Craftsman House, NSW, 1997, p.10 3 France, C., 'Justin O'Brien', Art and Australia, Volume 33, No.4, Winter 1996, p.483 4 Justin O'Brien cited in France, C., 'Justin O'Brien', Art and Australia, Volume 33, No.4, Winter 1996, p.483