Erwin Fabian (1915-2020)
Three years ago, Erwin Fabian passed from this life in Melbourne – he was 104 years old. I knew him since 1980 – for forty years – for some artists you could say that you knew them for lifetime – for Fabian, I knew only a flake of his long, complex and multifaceted existence.
Erwin Fabian was born in Berlin in 1915, the son of the distinguished and well-established German-Jewish academic expressionist painter, Max Fabian. Coincidently, exactly three weeks later and in Berlin was born Inge King– another German-Jewish sculptor who was also to have a profound impact on Australian art.
Fabian’s childhood was made up of art – art surrounded him on the walls of his family home, his father worked in his studio from dawn to dusk, while his mother, Else Boehm, was also an artist, who was one of his father’s painting students whom he married in 1913. The house was filled with artists and with talk about art, art commissions, art exhibitions and art politics – to be an artist seemed a natural progression and visiting art galleries was a natural pastime. Fabian recalled, “I regarded looking at paintings, the concern with painting, as the normal life, it wasn’t questioned.”
In March 1926, when Erwin was ten, his father died suddenly aged fifty-three. Things became more difficult for the young Fabian as he trained as a house painter and sign writer taking life drawing classes in the evenings. As the Nazis came to power, admission to the Academy was barred to him as a Jew and general racial persecution intensified.
On the eve of Kristallnacht, Fabian fled his homeland and took refuge in Britain, where his younger sister, Lilo, and some cousins from Munich, had preceded him. This was in 1938 when he was twenty-three-years-old. In London he mixed in the circles of the German Jewish diaspora and got some work in commercial graphic design and designed book covers. He also drew and studied art at the V&A and attended life drawing classes at the London Polytechnic.
A few months later, he was joined in London by his mother, who had fled Berlin and managed to bring out with her a considerable amount of his father’s work. The Fabian family shared a cramped little flat, so all Max Fabian’s bigger paintings and other larger artworks were stored separately in a warehouse and only work in the portfolios stayed in the flat. The warehouse was subsequently bombed by the Nazis during the blitz, and everything stored there was destroyed.
When war was declared on 3rd September 1939, some 70,000 British resident Germans and Austrians were termed ‘enemy aliens’. Tribunals classified them into three categories, from Nazi sympathisers in category A, to refugees from the Nazis, like Fabian, in category C. However, as the threat of a German invasion of Britain loomed, the newly installed Winston Churchill government panicked and virtually all the males, regardless of category, were deemed as of potential threat and more than 7,500 internees were shipped to internment camps in Canada and Australia.
Fabian was one of these – so that by the age of twenty-five he had lost not only his father and his homeland, but also his family and his freedom and was sent off to prison camps in Australia on the infamous Dunera. In the Australian Galleries’ exhibition, we have an immensely rare sketch that Fabian made on board of the Dunera of sleeping inmates.
The Dunera Boys were mainly German and Austrian Jewish refugees, many of whom were professionals – musicians, academics, architects, historians and artists – and most of whom were brutalised by the remnants of the British military who were sent to escort them. In contrast, the prison camps in Australia, in the remote locations of Hay, Orange and Tatura, were far more relaxed, where the internees rapidly organised for themselves lectures, art and music classes, concerts and the like.
It was here that Erwin Fabian made his first monotypes with improvised materials in a curious technique. He 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.
As with much of his work, it is immediately memorable and visually exciting. In the Australian Galleries’ exhibition, there are two very rare monotypes from 1941 made while in prison camps and two unique ink and wash sketches from the same period where there is a strong surrealist element. I am somewhat surprised that these are not already in major institutional collections.
One of the monotypes that he made in 1942 was included in a Red Cross Army Exhibition where it was spotted by Dr Ursula Hoff, a German Jewish scholar who had recently been appointed to the staff of the National Gallery of Victoria as the keeper of the department of prints and drawings and it was acquired for the gallery’s collection by the director Daryl Lindsay. This was Fabian’s first work in a public collection, subsequently the British Museum in London acquired 21 of his works, the National Gallery of Australia 15 works and there were numerous acquisitions made by many other public art collections in Australia and internationally. The NGV presently holds 12 of his works and other works are held at the Art Gallery of NSW and in other state galleries.
Fabian, in 1942, finally had the chance to swap internment for military service with the Australian army and he enlisted as part of the Eighth Australian Employment Company. The following year, he was transferred to the Australian Army Education Service where he worked on the magazine Current Affairs Bulletin, primarily designing its covers. He continued doing this for the next decade, long after he was demobbed in 1946, the same year he became a naturalised Australian citizen. One of his most memorable cover designs is for the Migration and the Refugee issue from March 1945 that appears remarkably contemporary to us today.
I have paused on Fabian’s biography for the first three decades of his life, in part because these circumstances are not widely known, and, in part, because they are so crucial for our understanding of the subsequent seven decades of his life when he emerged as an artist of international significance. I will not discuss Fabian’s biography any further other than to mention in passing his marriage, the birth of his two children Sarah and Daniel – the tragic and crippling death of Sarah as a child – and the establishment of a strangely semi-itinerant existence suspended between Europe and Australia for the rest of his life.
Although after he spent a dozen years in London between 1950 and 1962, working mainly in commercial art and teaching at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, he returned and settled in Melbourne and started to actively exhibit his art in a series of solo exhibitions held in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. He first started to exhibit with the Australian Galleries in 1991 with his first solo exhibition held at this gallery in 1995.
Fabian would return annually to Europe to visit his family and he maintained a studio in London and had many friends in the European art world – mainly in England, France and Germany. Included in the Melbourne exhibition is a selection of graphics that Fabian made over seventy years with examples of his famous non-figurative monotypes, the expressive dye drawings that he made in a medium to which he was introduced by Sidney Nolan, and his late ink and correction fluid drawings, many of which have never been exhibited before.
Fabian over the years had become a significant Australian artist and an artist of international standing. As a sculptor, he worked almost exclusively with scrap metal that was allowed to sit on the concrete floor of his studio, frequently for years, waiting to mature, like ripening fruit. Then the alchemy commenced as forms were arranged and rearranged until they seemed to belong. This was an ineffable quality of belongingness that is the key to his artmaking, sometimes a process that stretched over a number of years or, occasionally, it found an almost instant resolution.
I feel that the essence of Fabian’s creative process was his ability to create a new natural order, where all 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 to create 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. Take, for example, the beautifully expressive sculptures Arc, 1989, Oracle, 1997 or his stunning late masterpiece, Lethe’s comb, 2017 – we have at the Australian Galleries a cross-section of 30 years of Fabian sculptures.
Over the many years that I have spent visiting Fabian’s studio, I have always been struck by how memorable his non-figurative sculptures are, and whenever he would change a piece (something that happened constantly in his practice), I was struck by how noticeable that change would be. His sculptures became like a cast of characters, each endowed with its own personality, features and set of unique characteristics, each has its own voice and temperament. It is a hallmark of a wonderful artist the ability to create an alternative reality – one that seems real and believable – Fabian had this ability in spades.
abian was a very complex, passionate and intellectual being who never lost a sense of humour, freshness and naïve enthusiasm both in life and in his art making. He had always a quality of freshness and discovery, an unbridled joy in the intuitive process in the creative act. He knew that art was something that really mattered – it was something that was permanent and had to last the ages – he was in it for the long haul.
Last time I visited him, it was in his studio off Arden Street, he had been down the street to buy some sweet pastries for our cup of tea and was anxious that I see his latest creations. I remember there was a very heavy table sculpture on the bench that I sought to move. Fabian, intervened and said, “Sasha, it’s too heavy for you, let me move it.” My pride may have been injured, but this centenarian with an iron grip lifted the sculpture and move it effortlessly off the bench.
That afternoon, Fabian and I agreed that he had more than enough work for another solo exhibition. As I left that day, he escorted me to the door and said, “I do hope that I have time to make work for a few more exhibitions – I think that I am making some of my best work ever – I just need a little bit more time”. In this I do agree – some of Erwin Fabian’s best work was some of his late work – with the years his vision deepened and became more profound.
I conclude on a curious note, those who knew Fabian’s studio in Arden Street may also know that directly across the road lived one of his early champions, James Mollison, the legendary director of the Australian National Gallery. Mollison and Fabian both died on 19 January 2020.
Erwin Fabian, Australian Galleries, 35 Derby Street, Collingwood, 30 March – 22 April 2023
Erwin Fabian, Robin Gibson Gallery, 278 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney, 15 April – 6 May 2023
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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