- Also known as
primary name: Fabian, Erwin
- individual; sculptor/medallist; painter/draughtsman; printmaker; Australian; Male
- Life dates
- Text from Stephen Coppel, 'Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas', with a contribution by Wally Caruana on Aboriginal prints, BMP, 2011.
Fabian was born in Berlin, the son of the German painter Max Fabian (1873-1926). His mother was a former pupil of his father. As a preparatory step to art school he was apprenticed as a house painter and decorator but, being of Jewish background, was dismissed from his job under Nazi racial laws which also precluded his entry to the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1936 he helped to prepare a memorial exhibition of his father's work at the short-lived Jewish Museum in Berlin. He attended evening life classes where the swastika-wearing instructor warned him to leave Germany without delay. In 1938 Fabian arrived in London as a refugee. After the fall of France in June 1940, he was among the thousands of 'enemy aliens' indiscriminately interned in Britain.
Under brutal prison conditions Fabian was transported to Australia with 2,700 German and Austrian Jewish refugees on the 'Dunera', arriving in Sydney in September 1940. He was interned at Hay in New South Wales, where many of the internees organized themselves into discussion groups and classes. With the encouragement of the surrealist Hein Heckroth, he produced life-studies in monochrome wash and pencil as well as watercolours of scenes around the camp. He also began making monotypes which, unlike the reportage of the watercolours, convey the psychological experience of internment in an expressionistic and surrealistic language. He also spent periods in the camps at Orange, New South Wales and Tatura, Victoria. From 1942 following his release he served with the Australian Army, shifting goods from one railhead to the other in Tocumwal, on the New South Wales-Victoria state border. His drawings and monotypes depict a surreal empty landscape populated by the sculptural forms of dead ring-barked trees and railway gantries. In 1945 he was transferred to Army Education where, for its fortnightly 'Current Affairs Bulletin', he designed covers and illustrations, notable for their graphic boldness and originality.
In 1950 Fabian returned to London where he worked for the next twelve years as a graphic designer. His 1955 poster for the 'Financial Times', depicting the city-gent broadsheet reader as an industrial chimney stack, showed his graphic wit and ingenuity and was later singled out by E.H.Gombrich in his book 'Art and Illusion' (1968). From the late 1950s Fabian produced a number of book covers for Penguin, including Kafka's 'The Castle' for the Penguin Modern Classics series in 1957, for which he contributed a monotype of a haunting maze-like structure.
In 1962 Fabian returned to Australia for a five-year stay, since when he has commuted between Melbourne and London. During the 1960s he began making sculpture from discarded metal collected from farms and timber-mills and later from scrap yards. In 1965 he held his first exhibition of assemblage sculpture at the Hungry Horse Gallery, Sydney, followed by a second at the Kim Bonython Gallery, Sydney in 1973. Sculpture created from metal cast-offs continues to be his primary concern, with regular exhibitions of his work at Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney and Australian Galleries, Melbourne. A welded sculpture is in the High Court of Australia, Canberra. In 2000 a joint retrospective of Max and Erwin Fabian uniting the father's paintings with the son's sculptures was held at the Stadtmuseum Berlin, the city from which he had been forced to leave under Nazi persecution more than sixty years earlier.
The British Museum holds twenty-one of his works: watercolours, drawings, monotypes as well as two screenprints from the mid-1960s; it also owns work by Max Fabian. In Australia Erwin Fabian's work is held at the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Died Melbourne 19 January 2020, aged 104.
- Stephen Coppel, 'Erwin Fabian: The Sculptor's Journey' in Dominik Bartmann (ed.), 'Max und Erwin Fabian: Berlin-London-Melbourne', exh.cat., Berlin: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, Museum Ephraim-Palais, 2000, pp.141-46
Magdalene Keaney, 'Images of Displacement: Art from the Internment Camps' in Roger Butler (ed.), 'The Europeans: Émigré Artists in Australia 1930-1960', Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1997, pp.85-101