Marwan and portraiture as landscape

BEIRUT: The Arab world lost one of its most important, and prolific, senior artists Saturday. The Syrian-born, German-based painter Marwan passed away in Berlin at the age of 82.

Expressions of grief have been restrained. An understated posting on the artist’s website Monday simply noted the artist’s dates followed by “we miss you.”

The sentiment was reiterated by Galerie Sfeir-Semler, which has had a decadeslong association with the artist – the Beirut space hosting Marwan’s birthday solo show “Seventy Five” in 2009, while the Hamburg branch wrapped a self-titled solo in August.

Marwan Kassab Bachi was born Jan. 31, 1934, in Damascus. He studied Arabic Literature at the Damascus University before migrating to West Berlin in 1957 to study painting at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts.

The artist’s family was comfortable but at least one biography suggests that between 1962 and 1970 Marwan held a day job in a tannery, working on his art in the evenings.

Marwan has been a great influence on a number of younger artists – his most obvious (critically and commercially successful) protégé being Ayman Baalbaki. He was a force on the European scene since the ’60s when he was associated with Germany’s New Figuration movement.

In 1980, he became a full professor at Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts) and taught there until 2002. From 1992-2000 Marwan was also a jury member for Berlinische Gallery’s prestigious Fred-Thieler Prize. In 1994, he became the first Arab member of Germany’s distinguished Akademie der Künste.

The several national awards he received over his more than 50-year professional life include the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Prix Forum Culturel Libanais (both awarded in 2005).

His work hangs in several international museums – most notably, London’s British Museum and Tate Modern and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His pieces can also be found in such public collections as that of the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, at Amman’s Darat al-Funun, Damascus’ National Museum, Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation and Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Over the course of his career, Marwan’s work evolved from figurative depictions of recognizable models – politicians, artists and so forth – to a nominally representational style that veered toward abstraction.

In a brief essay written for its eponymous 2015 exhibition of Marwan’s canvases, etchings and works on paper, London’s Mosaic Rooms characterized the artist’s early work as tending “toward a more formally figurative approach, with aspects that challenge the traditional, including a flatness of plane, a disproportionate rendering of the skull, limbs appearing and disappearing.”

Among the most-recognized works of this early phase, arguably, is his 1965 canvas “Munif al-Razzaz 2.” The painting depicts the former secretary-general of the Syrian Baath Party as if he were a prisoner, with his head placed in stocks, or perhaps being prepared for the guillotine. His right hand has been raised to his ear level – as if to cover it, or perhaps to listen to something in the distance.

His style swerved toward abstract figuration in the ’70s, when the artist recalled being inspired to depict the human head as a landscape upon which the play of complex emotion could be represented.

“From here the expression becomes stylistically freer, larger in scale, more focused on solely the face, beginning to abstract it with vivid brushstrokes and colors,” notes the Mosaic Rooms essay. “This leads to the visual language audiences are perhaps more familiar with: bold strokes of paint and layers of color forming the faces themselves; emerging from and submerging into the paint. Form is shaped through the tension between one brushstroke and another, suspended between surface and depth.”

In conversation with curator Rasha Salti – published in her 2014 essay “Incarnation and Interior Geographies: Marwan’s Art of Portraiture” – Marwan recalled how “I was not interested in portraiture in its conventional sense, but rather in the human figure’s emotional and psychic evocative power as a metaphor, the body’s ability to incarnate our erotic, social and political yearnings, inhibitions and prohibitions. And to spare myself the painstaking process of whose portraits I ought to be drawing, I started using my own face and body as a model.”

Marwan’s funeral ceremony will be held Tuesday, Nov. 8, Waldfriedhof Zehlendorf, Wasgenstieg 30, 14129 Berlin, at noon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 25, 2016, on page 16.




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