The Salek Minc Lecture Series is co-presented by the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and the Institute of Advanced Studies.
Clinical Professor and former UWA Chancellor Alexander Cohen AO, remembers his friend, art patron, collector and lecturer, Dr Salek Minc.
This web-page will contain much of the biography of this popular and charismatic figure outlining, as it were, the ‘bare- bones’ of his character, personality and proclivities. ‘Bare bones’ of course is a misnomer for this rotund, jolly, bon viveur whose fulsome character and corpus were such as to dominate a room, a lecture theatre or an art gallery leaving his listeners entranced and enriched.
I knew him so well in his various guises and activities that I feel entitled to remedy small mistakes in his biography so as to set the record straight:
He was, in fact, born in Russia and enjoyed an entitled, fortunate and well educated existence until the looming clouds of the Communist revolution and the anti-Semitic tsunami caused his family to depart for Poland. A photograph, taken at the age of 10 shows an attractive, conservatively and tastefully clad boy with a book gently grasped in his listless left hand.
It was not long after this that the family departed Russia for Poland where Salek remained, concluding his early education before departing for Italy.
Here he entered Medical School and supported himself, to some extent, singing in the Vatican choir no doubt using that very voice which was heard in so many places over Perth during the long time that he lived here. It was deep resonant and with very Russian qualities of strength and emotion.
During those heady medical – school days he was drawn into the artistic world forming influential friendships that lasted throughout his life. It is evident that he was a very handsome young man with an attractive, sad and seductive visage that must have been a terrific success in his whirling social and cosmopolitan activities.
He graduated MD Rome, which was an inflated accolade compared with the rest of the medical world who, for the most part, wore the dual identifications of MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and of Surgery) The degree of MD was reserved for someone who had earned it by thesis or very stiff postgraduate examination.
Notwithstanding, those little letters MD secured for Salek an entry and welcome into the Australian medical profession. He was banished from Italy in 1935 because of his race and served as a doctor to a migrant camp in England for a time thereafter. He then joined a tourist vessel as a ship’s surgeon. It was on one such sojourn that he first tentatively dropped anchor in Perth.
Here he settled, worked in General Practice for a time, then set out on his own behalf as a physician with a singular interest in heart disease – both the physical and the cris de coeur. His theories on the development of heart disease were novel at the time and received scant recognition from the profession.
However, there was much relevance to them and studies over the years have led to a broadening of our understanding akin to that which he promulgated.
In brief he believed the heart existed and carried out its tireless work in a milieu of tension and unresolved conflict. This internal atmosphere he described as an ”autonomic jungle” by which he inferred that the autonomic nervous system – that silent, subterranean network of essential life-activity which monitors all of our subliminal functions - could be set into stress and conflict by internal decisions alien to nature or external pressures which were unavoidable in the circumstances of the individual’s life.
Thus he was wont to joke that ‘City Beach was littered with the bodies of dead joggers who did not wish to be there in the first place’.
We are increasingly realising that work pressures in unhealthy, harassing or unvalued circumstances can lead to high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure. This was long before “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” assumed the centre-stage position that it now occupies.
By the time that I first met him his physical characteristics were much changed as shown in the accompanying photograph – but not unhappily so. His rotundity, benignity of expression, but continuing intensity and penetration, all conspired to make him a special and unforgettable personality.
These characteristics, coupled with a deep, authoritative and pleasingly mellifluous bass voice, coupled to an ineradicable Russian/Polish/Italian accent made a meeting, but particularly a friendship, absolutely unforgettable.
Below this photograph of him with a relative is the Salek whom I knew and loved and about whom, without further ado I will tell some amusing but character-delineating stories.
Salek had a large Jewish practice and was beloved of most of them. He shared consulting rooms with the eminent surgeon Albert Gild and, since each of them had emerged from general practice as was commonly the case in those days, each felt able to assist patients in the initial aspect of their illness or complaint before seeking a more authoritative and expert opinion. Conversations would go like this:
“ Hello! Is this Dr Minc’s surgery? I must see Dr Minc today.
"I am sorry, Dr Minc is not here."
“Where is he?”
"Dr. Minc is on holiday overseas."
"How long will be away?"
“ OK. I’ll wait.”
He was a Romantic in most of his views and dealings, but especially in the manner in which he drove his car. It was a small, elegant Triumph Stag which I suppose had a certain relevance for his character if not verisimilitude by that age. Salek managed to clamber behind the wheel being thereby ensconced rather than enclosed.
He drove it in a dreamy fashion which caused him to be swept sideways by the rounded bustle of a tram on Horseshoe Bridge on three occasions. Finally the police felt it necessary to bring him down to headquarters to assess the reason for this folie à trois. There he was interrogated by a large but sympathetic sergeant. “Dr Minc, you are an intelligent man and, I understand, a very good doctor. Why is it that you are persistently sideswiped by a tram in the same place in this city?” I was not privy to Salek’s explanation but I understand that it was all carried out with extravagant movements of the hands and an almost unintelligible accent during a long and sustained Apologia pro sua vita. The sergeant surrendered. They departed from each other on good terms.
His lectures on art, given in the Arts theatre at UWA, were accompanied by a self- manipulated; 35mm projector from which there issued a whole Aladdin’s Cave of treasures from the art galleries of the world. These were taken surreptitiously or flagrantly depending on the institution and the subject. He interpreted them all, not only in terms of their form and format but also, and deeply, on their significance in the world of art, in the world of humankind and in his own sensitive and self- evaluating world of introspection. Audiences were captivated, unfailingly returning to each occasion and greatly enriched for the rest of their lives.
It has been said that Minc banished kitch, Tretchikov and the Monarch of the Glen from whole swathes of Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove – never to return. One felt entirely safe in the projectile hands of this aficionado. It was for this reason that I asked him to show a few slides for me whilst I lectured on “Stress” within the same venue that he had made his own. The first slide was impeccably manipulated.
Thereafter, not one reached the screen. The terrible moments were compounded for me by the fact that every four minutes (or so it seemed) Salek would issue a bulletin “Don”t worry Alex – I think that I have it this time.” I really needed no illustrations for a talk on stress. The audience had only to watch my writhing body and tremulous lips.
He drove casually through the mountains of Northern Italy. Rounding a bend – and probably bending his body in the opposite direction in order to compensate for sway – he forced a small canvas-hooded Fiat totally off the road but mercifully not to the edge of a precipice. The small vehicle exploded, showering the surrounding terrain with suitcases, bottles of good brandy and much loose clothing. From its shattered and bedraggled corpse there emerged an enormous northern Italian man wearing a heavy overcoat and an even heavier expression of impending retribution.
Salek had by this time extricated himself from his own vehicle and stood in the middle of the road facing his nemesis but pleading his innocent desire to make amends. He did not cease this endless catechism of misdoing, sorrow, mea culpas and broad promises of full restitution throughout the whole impending face-off. Meanwhile, Judgement day was slowly and inexorably approaching – the overcoat fully buttoned to facilitate arm-movement and the brows lowered in a fashion as to almost convert the visage into a sullen, simian (large simian) threat.
Finally, when there was only a garlic redolence between them, the huge overcoated, outraged Northern Italian gentleman uttered.” Looka” he said. “You forcea the car off the road.” “You smasha the vehicle”. “You ruina my holiday” and, grabbing Salek by his lapels “YOU WON’T LETTA ME TALK ABOUT IT!”
He lived much of his professional and retired life in a large home on Walcott Street. Large, but not nearly large enough to house the vast collection of art – some of it pricelessly unique, some ordinary and flawed but meaningfully so, but all capable of evoking a whole history and relevance of which one was before this totally unaware. There were portraits on the porch, bas-reliefs under the bed, landscapes in the ‘loo and abstracts in the antechamber. Amongst all of this charming, educative, nostalgic and stimulating surround dwelt also the Queen of the establishment to whom Salek paid loving homage throughout his life.
Mrs Minc (for one never dared to address her otherwise) was by then a diminutive but still forceful dynamic woman whose courage and infinite capacity for recovery and restitution knew no bounds. The story of her life to which only her most intimate and trusted friends – such as the sculptress Tedye Mc Diven – were privy, contained all of the elements so commonly borne by European Jewish women. Here is a photograph of her and, alongside that, the sketch which Louis Kahan made some years before her death. He has captured the calm dignity, wisdom and capacity for challenge which she projected.