Rare religious painting centrepiece of Australian art auction

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 22nd June, 2022

In a somewhat unusual move for the Australian art auction scene, a rare and significant religious painting by Justin O’Brien (1917-1996) entitled Madonna c1959 (lot 26) appears for the first time on the secondary market and is the centrepiece of Menzies forthcoming sale from 6.30pm Wednesday June 29 at 1 Darling Street, South Yarra.

The painting was first seen on public display in 1973 at the 40th International Eucharist Congress in Melbourne and again at the Art Gallery of New South Wales 2011 retrospective The Sacred Music of Colour.

O’Brien was known as an exquisite colourist and illustrator of biblical themes where he seamlessly combined Italian Gothic and Australian Modernism forms and this painting, with a $250,000-$350,000 catalogue estimate, is predicted by Menzies to break an artist auction record.

In an accompanying catalogue essay, fellow Australian artist James Gleeson describes the work saying 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,” he said.

 Icon Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) has four paintings in the auction, a mover that follows the success of his recent survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

According to Menzies, the most significant is Level Crossing 1997 (lot 27) – a painting that is an anthology of Smart’s favourite themes: coloured trucks, the road with its curving white line, a glimpse of distant apartment blocks, dynamic street signs and the striped arm of the toll gate.

Another auction highlight is Sidney Nolan’s (1917-1992) depiction of the legendary Burke and Wills Swamp (Burke and Wills Expedition) 1964 (lot 29) with a catalogue estimate of $220,000-$280,000.

William Robinson’s Chooks 1980 (lot 21) is another strong attraction while Fred Williams (1927-1982) features in a beautiful gouache from his Lysterfield series – Lysterfield 1966-67 (lot 24).

Spectacular and instantly recognisable is the Clement Meadmore (1929-2005) bronze sculpture Warm Valley 1964 (lot 36) which is listed at $100,000-$150,000 estimate.

The auction contains a strong selection of contemporary paintings including William Delafield Cook’s Waterfall 2004 (lot 25).

His landscape paintings seldom come to auction and, when they do, command plenty of attention.

Menzies says the painting – a masterful composition that shimmers with light – references Eugene von Guerard’s Waterfall, Strath Creek of 1862.

Another contemporary masterpiece is Garry Shead’s Bush Bacchanal, Pokolbin 2011 (lot 20) that also is listed at a $250,000-$350,000 estimate.

At almost 2.5 metres high and more than three metres wide, the painting draws on Bacchanalian Greek mythology to Shead’s uncle and legendary Hunter Valley winemaker, Maurice O’Shea.

Additional contemporary highlights include Tim Maguire’s Untitled 20070302, 2007 (lot 37), Dale Frank’s In the late 1950s….2005 (lot 38), and Tim Storrier’s The Night Run (Star Trail) 2007 (lot 28).

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