Menzies Art Brands



Solly Elenberg often admiringly recounted how Joel, his much-loved younger brother, thought nothing of regularly sauntering into the decidedly swish Delmonicos clothing store, just up the road from his Jewish family home in Carltons Lygon Street, to buy the most expensive Italian suits and shoes. Joel Elenberg had style to the brimful, much to his mothers constant chagrin.1

One things certain: Elenberg had panache and every hunched-over bohemian and glamorous hipster (the word fits even though it had not yet been invented) in Carlton knew him. He had energy in spades and, at first, the artistic offshoots of his inner ferment could only be seen in now non-existent small enthusiast-driven galleries in Carltons Rathdowne and Elgin streets in the early Seventies.

Elenbergs paintings (they were all paintings in those days) were raw and deliciously undercooked yet they had a notable bursting flair that was usually held together in pictorial space within a loose flow of figurative or biomorphic forms something that could also be seen in the works of many contemporaneous Carlton artists, especially in the somewhat unjustly all-but-forgotten output of Ralf Eberlein (born 1951) and the even earlier works of both Mike Brown (1938-1997) and Dale Hickey (born 1937). Mercifully, none of these paintings were polite or made to submit by being overworked. Their rakishly free compositional style was in the air, a tune whistled by everybody, and seemed to have been born of an emulation of the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), the pictorial hedonism of the anti-establishment cartoonist Robert Crumb (1943- ) and, of course, the feverish excitement generated by the stylistic firebrand that was Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) later to become Elenbergs soul-mate, close friend and the subject of many of his best portraits. Later still, in July 1980, Elenberg was to die of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at the tragically early age of thirty-two in Wendy and Brett Whiteleys company at their private villa at Sanur Beach in Bali. It was deeply lamented and many friends visited Elenberg during his last days: Kate Fitzpatrick, Tim Storrier, Jennifer Claire, a neighbour from Lavender Bay, and others. Elenbergs wife Anna together with their young daughter Zahava brought his body back to Melbourne for burial.

Some may remember Elenbergs large mural on the upper wall of the basement stairs in the Union Building at The University of Melbourne in the early to mid-Seventies. There the large mural (now removed) pulsed with bulging forms that were almost raucous in their pictorial insistence. They dominated the buildings space and seemed, like a sculptural frieze, to reach out as though wishing to materialise in three-dimensional form. Given the passage of time and the lack of supporting documentation it is now impossible to determine why Elenberg gave up creating such paintings soon after this time.

What we do know is that Elenberg became drawn to the wholeness of sculpture and the way it inhabited and, at its best, dominated space. Let me explain this seemingly abstruse observation: a good flower arrangement is a wonderful thing but a good Ikebana arrangement makes the whole room and, as all women will know, a good brooch makes an outfit.

There is something of this making power in Elenbergs marble Head III of 1978 created, when the artist was just thirty years age, for his major solo exhibition Joel Elenberg: Stone Carving 1977-1978, Italy-Australia at the Robin Gibson Gallery in Sydney in October 1978. During the summer of the previous year Elenberg travelled with his wife and daughter to stay and work at Arthur Boyds (1920-1999) rural Italian villa, Casa Peretaio, not far from Pisa in Tuscany. The trip was suggested over dinner by Boyd at Anne Purves home in Kew and upon arrival Elenberg bought a Fiat bambino and started working on mounds of the common Carrara ordinario and the special staturario marble, with the help of the famous SGF Studio. It was intense and it was blissfully simple: chestnuts, venison on an open fire and a mattress on the floor. Of course, the Elenbergs were open-armed and shared it around: the Whiteleys; the philosopher Ross Phillips (1947- ), the historian Gary Foley (1950- ), Akio Makigawa (1948-1999), Tony Pryor (1951- ) and Peter Schipperheyn (1955- ) - all came to visit.2

This highpoint period was pivotal in its effects: it seemed to both concentrate and confirm Elenbergs directions and it coincided with a bout of furious activity. Significantly, the present work belongs to this hallmark period.

According to his comments in the Robin Gibson Gallery catalogue Elenbergs attraction to sculpture was deceptively simple: he wanted tactility and he believed sculpture in Australia to be unexplored. It is difficult now without documentation to be exact about Elenbergs sudden interest and subsequent burst of activity and its stylistic origins. We can, however, make some credible observations that go some way towards decoding the significance of Elenbergs sculptures of the time.

The most important art book of the time, consulted by most artists, was Sir Herbert Reads Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture that was republished in its fifth edition in 1968. The book, by one of Englands pre-eminent intellectuals, placed stress upon the role and significance of sculpture, particularly English sculpture it established Henry Moore (1898-1986), Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Brancusi (1876-1957) and Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and brought them greater public attention. Not only that, the book landed in Australia at about the same time as a large exhibition of English Modernism was shown in 1966 at the National Gallery of Victoria, when it was still in Swanston Street. We cannot know if Elenberg saw this exhibition or read this book, but it was considered at the time to be essential reading. Those that saw the exhibition would recall the exciting quality and aesthetic freshness of this show, where breath-taking sculptures by Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003), James Butler (1931-), Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) and Moore were shown side by side with the best of British painting. Taken in tandem with Reads book it was exhilarating and all strangely liberating and no doubt Elenberg would have felt the effects.

Elenbergs Head III of 1978 has a bold visual impact that owes something to the simple stripped-down forms of African ebony sculptures, where the hardness of the material restricts depth of carving yet allows for a fine polishing of surfaces. There are a number of these in Reads book and their voguish post-Cubism interest was credibly established. It takes little imagination to accept that their totemic qualities and walking-stick carving attributes pointed to a new type of three-dimensional form. This is especially the case when we remember that, at the time, the English-speaking worlds most controversial sculptures were Torso of The Rock Drill and Adam by the Jewish sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (held by Tate Gallery, London and Harewood House, Leeds respectively). The sculptures compositional shapes and surfaces and the ways that they are made to play their part in creating new volumetric harmonies came to be admired by all sculptors, especially those, like Elenberg, who relied upon carving and extractive techniques (where form is thought to be released or uncovered) to create their works.

There is one other thing that should be considered. All of the above observations are overshadowed by one of Elenbergs most deeply moving encounters: that of seeing Jean Ipoustguys (1920-2006) marble sculpture The Death of The Father when it was on public view in the foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria after being acquired in 1972 he was overcome with admiration - I could work like that he said. 3

It is remarkable that Elenberg could encompass so much in his marble Head III of 1978. His conceptual method was to condense his impressions of three-dimensional form in order to reconfigure and personalise it. The result, as in his remarkable Head III of 1978, is a domestic-scaled hand carved sculpture that billows with compacted energy.


1. As told to the author by the artists brother (Monarch Cake Shop, St. Kilda, July 1996)
2. Anna Schwartz (Oct. 2007) as cited in Blackall, J., Australian Artists in Italy: Residences and Residents, Monash University Publishing:
3. Unpublished notes (Feb. 2013) of Diana Darling talking with Joel Elenberg, Carrara, Italy, 1978

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne

I wish to sincerely thank Solly Elenberg, my long-term friend and former student, for his wonderful help and for filling in the holes in my research.

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