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.
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.