Erwin Fabian: one of Australia's leading artists dies as 104
When Erwin Fabian died on 19th January 2020, there was a sense of disbelief. In part it was because he had always been there - as long as anyone could remember- he was 104 years-old after all. Also, in part, with him died some of Australia's cultural heritage - a Dunera boy, he was a survivor of the holocaust and he was one of Australia's most respected sculptors and graphic artists.
In a weird coincidence, his neighbour in Arden Street in North Melbourne, across the road from where Fabian had his studio, James Mollison, Australia's most distinguished gallery director, died the same day. He was 88.
Erwin Fabian was an extraordinary man and artist in every conceivable sense. He did not suffer fools gladly and when journalists approached him for a comment he would send them packing despite the despair felt by his gallerists who knew and treasured publicity as a strategy to promote their artist's work, However, when intelligent and well prepared commentators, such as Jana Wendt, sought him out, his door was always open and he was both receptive and hospitable.
I was fortunate that at our first meeting several decades ago we 'clicked', a friendship was born and Fabian was determined that someone should know his story, see and understand his work and a long series of taped interviews took place over a number of years. He was impatient not to be distracted too much from his art making, as he used to say, he was "delayed in starting", and once he was confident that his story was in my hands, the publication could wait until he died. Now that he has passed over, the monograph is being written and will be published in 2021.
What was so remarkable about Fabian's art that it warrants all of this attention Why is he represented in all of the major public art collections in Australia, in his native Berlin as well as the British Museum in London and many other collections around the world.
Erwin Fabian was born in Berlin in 1915, the son of the distinguished expressionist painter Max Fabian. By the time he was ten, he had lost his father, by the time he was twenty-two, he had lost his homeland, and by the time he was twenty-five he had lost his freedom. At the age of twenty-five, he had been reclassified by the British authorities from being a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany to an undesirable enemy alien to be deported to Australia for internment in internal prison camps in remote locations of Hay, Orange and Tatura.
He was deported on the infamous Dunera, which brought many German and Austrian Jewish cultural refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe. They were sent to Australia to be interned, but ultimately, collectively, they were to do more for the creation of Australia as a clever country, than decades of federal government policies and funded programs.
As a sculptor, Fabian worked almost exclusively with scrap metal, very occasionally with glass and wood, materials that were allowed to sit, frequently for years, waiting to mature like ripening fruit, on the concrete floor of his studio. Then the alchemy commenced as shapes were arranged and rearranged until they seemed to belong. This was an ineffable quality of belongingness that is the key to his art making, a process that stretched over a number of years or sometimes found an almost instant resolution. I feel that the essence of Fabian's creative process is the creation of a new natural order, where all of the elements appear as if they belong, as if they have been found this way in nature without actually resembling any specific form found in nature.
Fabian had that rare ability of creating a new and convincing reality through which the viewer can be seduced and captivated. His sculptures, in the final analysis, belong to the grand tradition of humanist sculpture - in other words, they interact with us on a human and emotive level - we come to believe in their existence not only as aesthetic objects, but as metaphors for the human spirit,
The other major aspect of Fabian's oeuvre were the monotypes that he started to make while he was in prison camps in Australia. In his unusual technique, Fabian covered a hard surface, like a pane of glass, with ink, then placed a sheet of paper on top of this and drew on this, on the back of the paper, creating a sort of traced image in reverse - a unique impression with a rich play of different textures and lines, where masses suggest faces, figures and forms without even a hint of literalness of representation. As with much of his work it is immediately memorable and visually exciting.
Fabian was initially recognised as a printmaker when the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a figurative monotype under Daryl Lindsay on the recommendation of Dr Ursula Hoff. Subsequently, purchases were made by the British Museum in London, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and by many other institutions.
In the final analysis, Erwin Fabian's art is a celebration of visual intelligence. He was a major and significant artist, one of the venerated and respected elders of our tribe.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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