Erwin’s century

In News May 3, 2017

He fled Nazi Germany into detention as a so-called enemy alien in Australia, then army life, fatherhood, and an overwhelming personal tragedy. But to critics, 101-year-old sculptor Erwin Fabian’s newest art says “life is beautiful”.


Words by Jana Wendt
Pictures by Damien Pleming  27 April 2017

A casual touch, I am warned by the sculptor’s young assistant, could trigger calamity, a chain reaction bringing down the whole show. Late summer sun presses in through the milky glass of the tall window in Erwin Fabian’s warehouse studio. Around him lies a field of twisted scrap metal.

In his 102nd year, the sculptor is sitting at a desk, silver hair, shiny as polished steel, falling about his face.

A few unfinished works, each composed of balancing, unconnected pieces of rusted steel, stand upright near their creator like obedient children. If some flat-foot doesn’t set off the feared domino effect, the pieces will eventually be welded together and taken away for exhibition. But only when Fabian has concluded the elements are ordered as they should be.

“Deciding that you can leave it. I mean, that’s always very difficult,” he says, as though the mere thought of making such a judgment unsettles him.

“There’s nothing to be done,” he adds, resigned to the way things are for him, “except looking at it, and getting used to it… But there’s no principle. I mean, I don’t follow theories or principles.”

Fabian chooses his words – between which there are long, long, pauses – with great care. His German-accented speech is fastidious, the voice a low rasp diminishing to a feathery whisper. At times, when the thread of Fabian’s thoughts breaks down, we sit in silence. I think of the sculptor travelling to retrieve the lost words, across a wilderness of time – the epoch since his birth in 1915 in Berlin. Yet anyone assuming that Fabian is an old man whose sharpness of mind has abandoned him would be mistaken.

As I discover, he is a hard marker. Beware the terse retort and the dismissive sniff in answer to what he – no doubt, correctly – regards as a stupid inquiry. A question on the first day we meet about his method (how does the process from first idea to finished sculpture work for him?) receives the definitive answer: “Well, it doesn’t.”

There is no escaping the sense that I am the latest in a very long line of idiots who have asked the same ill-considered question.

Erwin Fabian with the "bits and pieces" in his North Melbourne studio.

Erwin Fabian with the “bits and pieces” in his North Melbourne studio.

To the extent that Fabian will share anything about the way he goes about the practice of his art, I gather he works intuitively. While he may sometimes premeditate the shape of a sculpture – his style is assemblage, that is, making use of found objects – the premeditation may fall at the first hurdle (by collapsing, for instance) and must be quickly rethought.

“So it’s a working process, rather than a conceptual seed and then an outcome,” is the helpful summary provided by 33 year-old Emil Toonen, himself a sculptor, who intervenes to short-circuit the lame line of inquiry.

A sculpture is complete, he says, when he deems it to be “not even all that bad”.

I soon learn that attributing anything beyond everyday qualities to Fabian’s art will be pushed back by the artist, like a banquet in favour of a sandwich. When I suggest fancifully that some kind of magic may be at play in any successful work, Fabian, alarmed I may be referring to his own art, is resolute. “No, I don’t think that way.” To say the least, the artist is wary of making passionate pronouncements about his endeavours.

On the other hand, he is totally alive to mischief. A sculpture is complete, he says, revisiting the subject, when he deems it to be “not even all that bad”. The expression, Fabian informs me, is borrowed from the British graphic designer Abram Games. He also refers gleefully to the German performance artist Joseph Beuys, who once famously presented a work entitled “Explaining Paintings to a Dead Hare”, while holding the self-same dead hare. Fabian is utterly averse to over-talking or intellectualising his work. Why? “Well, I don’t know how to do it.”


We toss around a debating topic that gradually turns into another shared joke – what is the point of art? When he laughs about the suggestion that making art – a pursuit to which Fabian has devoted the greater part of his long life – may be a useless pastime, he concedes, “… Well, in a way, of course, it is”. And in another way, of course, it’s not. Rather it may be the truest and most useful look into our human selves. And Erwin Fabian may be the most artfully self-effacing artist in the world.

These days, in his North Melbourne studio, Fabian relies on Toonen, who has assisted him for about seven years, to fetch the pieces Fabian imagines could come together to make a sculpture. On a notebook in front of Fabian is a sketch he has drawn to guide Toonen in the search for a piece Fabian knows is buried in the studio hoard. The metal jumble in the warehouse is the result of Fabian’s trips over decades to a nearby scrapyard.

“He formed a relationship with the people who worked there,” explains Toonen, “and he used to go every Saturday, I think, to fill up his car with bits and pieces and get it back to the studio.”

After years of welding together the pieces that form his works, Fabian has finally relinquished the labour to Toonen. “I’m very lucky to have him,” he says, affectionately, looking towards the younger man.

“The way that he manages to transform different pieces of scrap metal into a new and natural being … It has an attitude, and we start to project our own emotions into it.”

As Toonen explains, the process of assembling the pieces is not without technical difficulties. The disparate steel types in Fabian’s ancient collection “can influence which piece can go with which other piece, and also the welding process… Sometimes there might be nine or ten different pieces of different material stacked together. When you start to weld them, that creates a kind of a hot spot that then shrinks when it gets pulled – and then it pulls the whole thing over [collapsing the sculpture].” On this subject, there is stoic resignation from assistant and master.

Sasha Grishin, a distinguished art scholar who has followed the course of Fabian’s life and work for three decades declares “He is one of the handful of major contemporary Australian sculptors. You cannot ignore Erwin’s work – it demands attention.” Grishin, an Emeritus Professor at ANU, attributes “the great miracle” of Fabian’s sculpture to “the way that he manages to transform different pieces of scrap metal into a new and natural being…. It has an attitude, and we start to project our own emotions into it.” Grishin believes the viewer’s relationship with the work “becomes one of those magical bonds”.

Clearly, Fabian would not condone such intemperate language.

Grishin positions Fabian in the humanist tradition of Donatello, Michelangelo and Rodin. Fabian, he says, is not the kind of artist whose works the viewer approaches with a mind to “plains, flats, reflective surfaces or Euclidian geometry…. You approach them like entities, like beings”.

They are, in fact, beings capable of deeply moving the viewer. Indeed this viewer, who first came across Fabian’s work some years ago, and in whose memory the pieces embedded themselves, wondered how constructs of rusted metal could be so touching. Grishin finds in them “lyricism”, “notes of tragedy”, and “a musing about what is life”.

Fabian heeded the warning of the instructor, a swastika-wearing Nazi: leave the country before the terror swallows you up.

Unlike some others who reach a venerable age, the silver-haired man bent over in his chair gives the impression of living intensely, and for now. The urgency in his daily life is to make progress with the latest piece of sculpture calling for resolution. But Fabian’s individual history, the story of how he came to live and work in Australia, is bound up in the darkness of one of the great scourges in our shared human history. As the son of Max Fabian, a prominent Jewish painter in Berlin, Erwin Fabian was expected to enter the Berlin Fine Arts Academy where his father had studied. (The son remembers Max Fabian disappearing daily to his studio early in the morning and returning home only after sunset).

But the rise of the Third Reich twisted Erwin Fabian’s life plans out of shape. Seven years after the untimely death of his father at the age of 53 (when Erwin Fabian was just ten), it was decided Fabian’s schooling would be cut short in favour of a trade. For three years he was apprenticed to a decorating firm as a house painter and sign-writer. Fabian helped to frame some of his father’s works for a memorial exhibition three years before the outbreak of war, at the then newly founded Berlin Jewish Museum. The establishment was closed by the Nazi regime two years later in 1938.

Attending evening life classes, Fabian heeded the warning of the instructor, a swastika-wearing Nazi, who privately admitted to having a Jewish relative: leave the country before the terror swallows you up. Fabian found his way to London. His sister, Lilo, had already made the journey; their mother, Else, also an artist, came later, bringing with her Max Fabian’s works. With no room to accommodate more than a few portfolios and canvases in the flat shared by the family, the remainder of Max Fabian’s work was stored in a warehouse. The site and the works contained in it were destroyed by German bombers in the Blitz.

The 101-year-old continues work on his latest sculptures. 

The 101-year-old continues work on his latest sculptures. 

Year (2015) by Erwin Fabian.

Year (2015) by Erwin Fabian.

Fabian attended evening classes at the London Polytechnic, and made connections with other exiled artists. One of his contacts gave him work designing book covers. But in 1940, fighting for its survival against Nazi Germany, and in rising panic at the possibility of invasion, Britain interned all Germans and Austrians between the ages of 16 and 60. Erwin Fabian, then 24, was among those now reclassified as “enemy aliens”. He was taken to a camp near Liverpool, and in 1940 boarded the hired military transport (HMT) Dunera bound for a destination withheld from him and fellow internees until part-way through the 58-day journey. The men were largely confined below decks in over-crowded conditions and in semi-darkness. Fabian claims a German seaman with whom he became friendly on board, calculated early that the vessel was heading for Australia.

A list compiled at the time, recorded the occupations of those on board. Among them were 12 photographers, 8 authors, 6 musicians, 165 students, 21 doctors, 19 bakers, 2 judges, 17 furriers, 30 leather workers, a silversmith, and 27 artists. While the more than 2700 detainees on the troop carrier included a number of Nazi sympathisers, many of the ‘enemy aliens’ were Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. The voyage was marked by the brutality of some of the British guards, who intimidated their charges, robbed them of personal possessions, and hurled visas and documents overboard. Even before war’s end, the British government moved to redress the injustice, compensating the men for their losses.

“The albatrosses were most impressive. But the whales! A huge fin [came] out of the water!”

“My memory of past history hasn’t diminished itself,” says Erwin Fabian, leaning forward in his chair, solid hands cupped over the end of the armrests. “I never got seasick. I was lucky,” he says. “But I cleaned up a lot of seasickness.” And the British guards? “Oh, well, I mean, they were what I now would regard [as] just cast-offs of other regiments or other units that people wanted to get rid of. What happened, I thought, was the outcome of war,” he says, meaning that such cruelty was unsurprising under the circumstances. He checks himself, adding he was not “so soft and reasonable” back then. “I wasn’t,” he admits. “Of course, awful things happened. But if you loose the dogs of war…“.

Fabian embarks on an account of a friendly gesture by one of the Dunera’s guards who allowed Fabian to spend time on deck to perform a menial duty. “Is this your albatross story?” inquires assistant Toonen. Fabian says: “The albatrosses were, of course, most impressive. But the whales! A “huge fin [came] out of the water! That was quite a marvellous experience. And then another one – that was the most exciting thing.”

The enemy aliens travelled for 19 hours through what Fabian described as “an endless landscape” of “ochrey-yellow soil, flat and empty”.

On arrival in Australia in September 1940, Fabian and most of his fellow-travellers were taken to a specially established camp in Hay in south western New South Wales. The enemy aliens travelled to their destination by train for 19 hours through what Fabian has described as “an endless landscape” of “ochrey-yellow soil, flat and empty”. Kangaroos bounded alongside the tracks.

The story of the remarkable group of internees who, in time, established a camp ‘university’ exploiting the special talents of the detainees is well enough known. There were courses in languages, lectures on chemistry, astronomy, and higher mathematics, and instruction on the dramas of Shakespeare. Fabian at first made use of some of his own watercolours, brushes and a sketchbook, which had survived the Dunera crossing. He also learned to make the most of what was available in the camp. Mixing printers’ ink with boot polish, he developed a variation on the print-making technique known as monotype. Fabian’s version involved the use of a flat surface such as window glass or masonite, which he spread with the boot polish and ink, before drawing on paper placed over the top and rubbing the surface to create an impression on the paper’s underside.

Over three quarters of a century on from those events, the artist, in his Melbourne warehouse, is reaching for an answer to a question. In place of more words, he retrieves a catalogue featuring a picture he made back then. The surrealist monotype depicts huts at night in the Hay camp. A two-headed man, torso stripped of skin by a predator still attached to what remains of the man’s body, walks near a stunted bush. At the man’s feet lie disembodied faces while a distant surveillance light casts shadows on the ground.

Is this the way you still remember Hay? I ask.

“Yes,” replies Fabian.

Other tortured images created by Fabian at the time appear to reflect both the chaos of the Europe the artist left behind and the displacement of forced exile in Australia.

Did he ever attend any of the reunions of the “Dunera Boys” of which he is, of course, a notable member?

“No, I didn’t go,” says Fabian bluntly. “I also didn’t read the ‘Dunera News’, which was published by an electrical engineer in retirement. But not because I was saving the $12,” he says wryly. “I thought it would, doubtless, be full of death notices….”

Returning to the subject of the reunions, Fabian adds, “I didn’t quite know what the gathering was for. To celebrate that they got away alive…? I don’t know.” Emil Toonen, who has witnessed some of the pilgrimages by writers, historians and family members of Dunera survivors, to Fabian’s studio attempts a clarification: “It’s something that happened that you didn’t choose to be part of,” he says, addressing Fabian. “But it’s also something you didn’t necessarily want to define the rest of your existence by – and I guess others, perhaps, have.” Fabian reflects on the enforced fellowship of those who, 77 years ago, clustered together aboard a troop carrier, “Yes, a sort of brotherhood from the heavens”.

Fabian met Sidney Nolan – with whom he would continue an association – over his first restaurant meal in Australia.

As the war continued, Fabian was taken to two other camps – in Orange in rural NSW, and finally, Tatura in Victoria. It was in the last camp, at a time when the threat of Japanese invasion loomed, that the detainees were offered release from internment in return for service in the Australian army. Fabian took up the opportunity and was eventually engaged to produce covers for the army’s Current Affairs Bulletin. A travelling exhibition of soldiers’ art arranged by the army and the Red Cross included a monotype, which was bought by the National Gallery of Victoria – the first of Fabian’s works to be acquired by a public collection. During his time stationed in Melbourne, Fabian met Sidney Nolan – with whom he would continue an association – in the company of the Heide artists’ colony founder, John Reed. Their meeting took place over Fabian’s first restaurant meal in Australia.

Demobbed in 1946, Fabian tried his hand at commercial art in Melbourne, designing book covers. When he returned to London in 1950, Fabian found work with advertising agencies, producing graphic designs for P&O and Shell, as well as book covers for the publisher Penguin. A Fabian poster for the Financial Times attracted the attention of the revered art historian, Ernst Gombrich, who tried to analyse the effect of what the artist had created. Fabian drew a newspaper-reading industrialist, whose behatted head was not a head but a chimney. Even Gombrich, it seems, found Fabian’s approach enigmatic. “The character of the illusion,” Gombrich wrote, “is hard to describe…” at the same time acknowledging that it had the capacity to “amuse and intrigue us”.

Erwin Fabian with fellow sculptor Emil Toonen and scenes from their North Melbourne warehouse, and the cake made for Fabian's 100th birthday party in 2015.

Erwin Fabian with fellow sculptor Emil Toonen and scenes from their North Melbourne warehouse, and the cake made for Fabian’s 100th birthday party in 2015.

Parasang (2013) by Erwin Fabian.

Parasang (2013) by Erwin Fabian.

A decisive shift in Fabian’s art occured during a return to Melbourne in 1962. Fabian, by now, a married man with a baby daughter and son made a trip to the edge of the state forest in Victoria’s Gippsland region. There the graphic artist and print maker fell upon some discarded pieces of old farm machinery. “I saw bits and pieces lying in the bush, and I collected them,” he says. “It all was new to me, and I liked what I found.” The “bits and pieces” finished up on his mantlepiece after Fabian had arranged them in combinations of forms that pleased him. Or as he tells me, in characteristic style, “more or less” pleased him. He adds: “Thinking positively about what you’ve done … sounds a bit like smugness: ‘look what I’ve done, isn’t it beautiful?’”

Through his Australian Galleries, Stuart Purves has represented Erwin Fabian in Melbourne for around 30 years (while Robin Gibson Gallery shows the artist’s work in Sydney). “He’s held in high regard by the people who recognise what real art is,” says Purves. But as befits a devoted high-energy promoter such as Purves, his admiration for Fabian’s art is mixed with frustration at a non-compliant artist. “I’d almost go as far as to say that he all but destroys his own career. You know, [he] hides behind it as though it’s made by somebody else,” protests Purves. “Maybe it’s a failing of mine. But at the same time, when I push for him, I can feel as though I’ve got a bridle on, and he’s pulling it back.” Fabian’s reticence, according to Purves, is based on complex motives. “I think he is very, very sure of his own work, but also, not sure that other people are,” which leads Fabian to think “that maybe he mustn’t falsely promote it in case it lets him down. I think it’s a pity.” Unlike artists who readily talk up their own work “Erwin, actually, is almost struck dumb,” laments Purves. “The artist’s statement is ‘let the work do the talking’. But actually, you do need a hand.”

Sarah’s death “punctuates every breath Erwin takes. It’s something that is with him all the time.”

The period of Erwin Fabian’s five-year return to Melbourne from 1962 represented a time of important creative change and expansion as he discovered the possibilities of a fresh form. “The experience of working in three dimensions – that was new, and that, of course, affected me,” Fabian says, planted opposite me now in his warehouse, walking frame nearby. He is recalling the discovery of what has since become the mainstay of his art. Fabian’s first exhibition of sculptures, at the Hungry Horse Gallery in Sydney, composed from pieces of discarded farm machinery took place in 1965.

The record also shows that in the preceding year, Fabian suffered a shocking personal tragedy. His first child, Sarah, died at the age of five. In a book about Sarah, A Shining Space, published many years after the little girl’s death, her mother Ailsa Fabian writes: “I sometimes see her looking at me from Erwin’s face, and even now I don’t know what features of mine she had. But I noted very early that she had Erwin’s hands, broad powerful hands with short tapering fingers.” The book recounts how Erwin Fabian painted his daughter’s playroom with characters from stories he had invented for her. Sasha Grishin, whose association with the sculptor is long and deep, observes that Sarah’s death “punctuates every breath Erwin takes. It’s something that is with him all the time.”

Erwin Fabian’s works are held in collections around Australia including the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of Victoria, the High Court and the Australian War Memorial. In 2000 the Berlin Stadtmuseum brought together the remaining works of Max Fabian and the art of his son for a joint exhibition in the city from which Erwin Fabian had fled as a young man. Fabian’s art, observes Sasha Grishin, has greatly changed over the long span of his creative life. “He is becoming more lyrical. Early in the piece, there was much more drama in his work.” Now, Grishin says, Fabian “seems to celebrate a joy in being. For a person who’s one hundred, he’s not at all perplexed with dark angels of death around the place. He sees that there’s a beauty in just the word, ‘being’.” According to Grishin, the artistic challenge for Fabian amounts to: “Can you extract human qualities and put them in an abstracted, figurative language that will strike you to say: Life is beautiful, isn’t it? To be a person is something beautiful, isn’t it? I think those sorts of qualities become stronger and stronger in Erwin’s later work.”

Fabian wonders out loud where they could be. From a pile of papers on a bench behind the sculptor, Emil Toonen pulls a series of photographs. They are images of work produced by Fabian in the last two and a half years on trips to Europe. One series is assembled from stone discarded by builders constructing a doorway; the other is composed of timber left over from garden edging. The latter pieces, in particular, richly-hued bold forms, are captivating. After assembling the timber pieces Fabian transported the components from Mallorca to a studio he has maintained for years in London, which is where they remain.

“When I see that, I’m sorry I’m not back in London,” says Fabian, lighting up. “It makes me feel quite nostalgic for getting there, and getting on with it.”

Preparing to take my leave, I hold Fabian’s broad hand, with its short tapering fingers, in mine. I walk past the poised works standing near the sculptor’s chair conscious of my responsibility not to disturb their balance. As it turns out, they’re not even all that bad.

An exhibition of Erwin Fabian’s recent sculptures will be at the Robin Gibson Gallery in Sydney from April 29 to May 24.