Gabriel Elbaz – Sculptures in Search of a Museum

John Preedy talks to Gabriel Elbaz, a French sculptor whose roots go back to the Russia his fiercely communist mother Magda fled in 1922 and whose monumental works in wood are now in search of a suitable European home.

Gabriel Elbaz – A Life’s Work is Looking for a Home

At his house in the hills above Latouille, Gabriel Elbaz has a large room full of his sculptures and he wants to donate them to an organisation which has the space and resources to house them properly.

Through his mother Gabriel has family connections with Russia and in 2008 it was agreed that thirteen pieces would be accepted by the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow, but it was his responsibility to arrange the importation and the Russian authorities were not co-operative.  They wanted to charge import duty, and assessed the works as having a high value, so the project was cancelled.  He did manage to export one piece called Stalingrad which is now in the Museum of History in Moscow.

In 2012 he found a location in a deconsecrated church in Cahors and all was going well until the Conseil Generale du Lot refused to fund the project or take any ongoing responsibility.  He is currently in contact with Martin Malvy, President of the Conseil Regional for Midi-Pyrenées, and whilst he is hopeful that a solution will soon be found, his recent experiences do not make him optimistic.
Gabriel Elbaz
Gabriel Elbaz has worked with wood since he was eight years old.  One day his mother was taking him to a department store to buy him a school uniform when they passed a workbench.  He was as certain that he wanted the workbench as he was that he didn’t need a uniform.  The family had little money but, thanks to his persistence and a persuasive salesman, she bought it for him.“There was an unused hen house on the property where we lived and the bench was put in there.  Then I stole some wooden planks from a neighbour, drew a silhouette of a woman and started cutting out the shape with an old saw.  That’s the bench over there,” he said, pointing to the other side of his workshop.
When he left school he was trained as a cabinet maker and earned his living restoring old furniture until 1987, when he was tired of it, and started carving seriously.
His sculptures are on a large scale.  Many are two or three metres tall and some, like his Mise à Tombeau which is in the form of a group of standing figures, are six or seven metres wide.

Mise à Tombeau

Although Gabriel has never been particularly interested in making a name for himself, or selling his work, he has had exhibitions in prestigious locations like the Abbey of St Denis in Paris and Vezelay Abbey as well as others in South West France.
Some of Gabriel’s life’s work
“My art comes from the bottom of my heart and is an extension of myself.  So I’m lucky that I’ve had complete freedom to choose what I want to do, without any consideration of what might sell or be popular”, he said.
I’ve visited him several times now and each time I’ve appreciated his work more and seen new things in it.  Seeing so many powerful pieces all together, however, is a bit overwhelming.  Gabriel has had a troubled life and there is so much emotional intensity in these works that I’ve found that it needs time to begin to absorb and understand what he does.
Over the years he has explored several themes, some pieces are religious like l’Annonciation.


Or La Pieta
La Pieta


Gabriel’s mother, Magda, had to leave Russia at the age of 12 in 1922.
“She was a convinced communist and was furious at having to leave behind everything that she knew and believed in.  She was also at the same time very taken with the rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church; my interest in religious architecture and symbols comes from her”, said Gabriel. This is the piece he calls Magda.
Gabriel’s father was Jewish and Algerian but he was living and working in Paris in 1940.
“He was a well educated man who taught science and maths.  He survived the Nazi occupation by taking the identity of a dead person whom he resembled; but I never knew him because he died when I was 5 years old”, said Gabriel.
Some pieces, like Echanges, are even more abstract, and inspired by a concept; when I asked him about this sculpture he said.
“I’m not the sort of artist who hides himself away like a bear in a cave.  I like to communicate with all sorts of people.  Echanges represents both listening and talking; the concave shapes are both mouths and ears, so there is an exchange of communication”.
Other sculptures are more auto-biographical for example, Les Deux Frères. 

Les Deux Frères

I wondered whether he had a brother.
“Yes, but he’s dead now.” said Gabriel. ” Michel was much older than me and for a long time I looked up to and admired him, but later I lost patience with his passivity.  He was devastated by the suicide of my sister Catherine, who was 18 years old when she died.  He was 17 at the time and he never really recovered from it.  He used to sit and smoke while he watched me working on rebuilding this house and never offered to help.  Finally I’d had enough and told him he wasn’t welcome!”
I asked him about his sister’s suicide and he related the events leading up to it.
“She was at the Lycée in Livarot, Normandy and fell in love with a boy from a well-off family.  His parents had other plans for their son and so she was sent away to a boarding school in Deauville.  There was some sort of mischief hatched by a group of girls, which she was caught up in and, as a humiliating punishment, she was told to scrub the floor of the dining room.  She refused and was expelled.  None of the other girls that were involved were punished.  The combination of her sense of loss and injustice was overpowering.”
“She came home and very soon afterwards my mother found me and said your sister’s door is locked and I can’t get in.  Can you climb through the small window of the toilet next door to her room and see what she’s doing?”
“I did as I was told and found her on the bed covered in blood.  She had shot herself.  I was eight years old at the time,” he calmly related.
Now he is in his sixties his work continues to evolve.  His latest piece La Fin d’un Monde is his most complex so far; containing several elements which evoke a post apocalyptic scene.  It is difficult to photograph and really needs to be viewed from several directions.
La Fin d’un Monde
He told me that he’d found this the most difficult piece he has ever done.
“Completing it has taken a year and there were many periods when I could not progress at all.  I’m not doing any more sculptures” he said.  “I’ve emptied myself of all inspiration, I just want them to go to a good place where they can be seen and looked after.”
Gabriel is fit and active.  Personally, I doubt that he has yet finished his life’s work.
Story: John Preedy
Photos: Quince Graveson and Jeannot Cances

John Preedy 
lives in France, blogs at Living in the Lot  and contributes regular opera and book reviews to French News Online.


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