Behind Barbed Wire: Printmaking in Australian Internment Camps

Fig. 1. Erwin Fabian, Internees outside their huts, Internment camp, Hay, New South Wales (22 April 1941), watercolor on paper, 37.2 x 48.0 cm. British Museum, London. Presented by the artist. 2005,1031.14. ©Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

“In Hay, after the general parade and a morning inspection by the military, I put up a board between the bunk and the window, and must have managed to get an old window, or some window glass, and some printing ink used in the office for duplicating. I spread the stuff with a bunched up piece of cotton on glass or on the smooth part of masonite for my monotypes.”1 The German-Jewish internee Erwin Fabian thus later recounted his method of making prints while imprisoned in an internment camp in Australia during World War II. Fabian was among 2,700 refugees of mostly German and Austrian Jewish background who had been transported under prison guard on the ship Dunera from England to Australia in 1940. Following the fall of Paris to the Nazis that June and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, the British government had ordered the internment of all male “enemy aliens” in Britain irrespective of their status as refugees from fascism. This indiscriminate roundup took place within a climate of mounting suspicion and hysteria fueled by press and government fears of a fifth column. While most internees were confined in camps on the Isle of Man and others were shipped to Canada, the Dunera internees arrived in Australia following a grueling 12,000-mile voyage.2

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  1. Erwin Fabian, “Looking Back,” in Dominik Bartmann, ed., Max und Erwin Fabian: Berlin–London–Melbourne (Berlin: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin, Museum Ephraim-Palais, 2000), 129–31, quoted from 131. For the prints and drawings made by the internees in Australia, see Stephen Coppel, Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas (London: British Museum, 2011), 48–56, and Coppel, “Erwin Fabian: The Sculptor’s Journey,” in Bartmann, ibid., 141–6. For a fuller discussion, see also Magdalene Keaney, “Images of Displacement: Art from the internment camps” in Roger Butler, ed., The Europeans: Emigré Artists in Australia (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1997), 85–101. []
  2. For an excellent scholarly compilation of primary historical documents relating to the Dunera and internment in Australia, see Paul R. Bartrop with Gabrielle Eisen, eds., The Dunera Affair: A Documentary Resource Book (Melbourne: The Jewish Museum of Australia and Schwartz & Wilkinson, 1990). The story of the Dunera is related in Cyril Pearl, The Dunera Scandal: Deported by Mistake (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1983). []