Speech in Honour of Marwan
Thieler Prize 2003
The first of Marwan’s extant paintings shows the landscape before the gates of his home city. Reminiscent of French impressionism, it was painted with confident lightness in Damascus in 1947/48, when the artist was 13. In his studio in Schmargendorfer Straße, a large sombre image of two heads leaning together is currently emerging. We are celebrating today the unwavering journey of almost fifty years of the painter Marwan. What do I mean by “unwavering”? In the half a century from 1947/48 to today, during which time painting has often been beset by other techniques, or indeed given up for dead, Marwan has continually bestowed the medium with new triumphs of emotional imagery clearly differentiated from realistic, abstract, constructivist or installationist art. By “unwavering” I also mean that Marwan – if we attempt an overview of his oeuvre from the early landscapes to the part abstract, part figurative monsters, to the couples, giant heads, melodramatic facial landscapes, marionettes, still lives, once again monumental heads and finally pairs of heads – has always searched for a formal vocabulary that allowed the transformation into painting of existential questions.
“I think utterly existentially,” Marwan once told me in his studio, and also that “a painting is like a wound.” In his search for images he most probably starts from concrete occurrences, yet his painting is not an art of consternation. He knows too well that poetic language – of which he is a master, and which, for example, his friend the great Syrian poet Adonis finds in human disquiet and suffering – is radically different from visual language. To express loss in an image, to allow pain to appear, to paint the stillness of thousands of years, is a difficult process. Marwan likes to compare the artist with the architect. He needs a long time for a painting. In some years only four or five are “completed”, i.e. considered by him to have been truly concluded. He applies layer after layer, with great patience and intensity, as if a crystallisation of experience were taking place. I wanted to express this in a poem, and wrote:
“for there is only the face
set up once again vibrating
from death into life
returning, the indelible countenance”
Particularly the human images of the pat few years – with their thick layers of paint, where blue and green tunnel under deepest red, where yellow breaks out of grey-black craters and broken brown tones interweave and shimmer – bring to my mind the Islamic idea of the origin of humankind: from the earth, from a seed, growing and taking on many forms before its final perfection.
Marwan is a painter above all. The story behind an image, or whatever its starting point might be – the veils of the women in Damascus or the murdered Palestinian in the arms of his friend – is not what he is finally interested in. His painting is concerned with the relationship to one another of surfaces of colour, with layers of colour, with a deft balancing, with a dark glow coming into light, bathing us in its delicacy. Nowhere in contemporary painting can it be more easily seen than in Marwan’s work that colours have both physical and emotional properties. Even in the comparatively realistic so-called “Figurations” of the late 1960s he was not seeking the depiction, but rather the painterly truth, of his subjects. And, considering the lengthy creative process involved, this also means that a part of his existence has quite physically entered each painting. All his pictures, but particularly those of the past decade, are an emotionally compressed, and thus almost abstract, expression of the suffering of human existence, filled with the burning of pain, the shock of insight and the wounds of love. Compelled to name Marwan’s artistic forefathers, I would place Antonin Artaud first, and his unforgettable portraits and self-portraits, created in the asylum at Rodez, which show the same balance between emergence and disintegration that Marwan attempts each day at his easel. Then Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, because of the painterly intelligence and vision of their insight into human existence. Then Alberto Giacometti, because of the collapse of proximity and distance within the portrayal; in Marwan’s work too the face, on approaching it, gradually dissolves into a free play of colour. And finally Mark Rothko, who as almost no other was able to express meditation, stillness and reticence. Marwan does not share Rothko’s sublimity – his paintings, for all their meditative contemplation, are too aggressive – but his monumental heads at times attain the quality of icons, of the divine countenance, of universality, and are thus – at least in my view – related to Rothko’s mysticism. We can experience an almost unbearable stillness of the universe in the work of both artists.
Many years ago I was witness to a conversation between Heiner Müller and Iannis Kounellis in the Paris Bar. They were discussing what it is that makes great art. Here one should know that Heiner Müller was speaking bad English and good German, Kounellis bad Italian and bad Greek. So the two were gesticulating, laughing, making little drawings on the serviettes and using their fingers and hands, the better to explain and also to hear one another. The result of this remarkable conversation was that “great art” had to combine an international vocabulary with radical subjective and local elements. In Marwan’s case the influence of his homeland Syria has often been a focus of inquiry. In ancient times, until well into the Ottoman period, Syria was an open zone of encounter between Persia and Anatolia, Egypt, the Mediterranean and the Levant. Almost the exact opposite of Berlin, the uncomfortable, divided, cold, northern city where Marwan – in the unforgettable phrase of Eberhard Roter – “found his artistic Damascus.” The real Damascus of his childhood was a place of security and sensuousness. Marwan can talk very vividly about it: the violet evening light, the kites whirring in the sky, the green light in the courtyards, absorbed by vegetation, the veiled women and how arousing they were for adolescent boys. He can wonderfully evoke the sublimated sensuousness of the Orient that we can also experience in its carpets, its marvellously colourful illuminated manuscripts or in the dark and gold of the mosaics in the Great Mosque of Damascus. But I must confess that I do not know how much of all this is concretely present in Marwan’s paintings. From 1955 to 1957 he studied Arabic literature at the University of Damascus. In September 1957 he came to Berlin and became a student of Hann Trier at the Hochschule der Künste (College of Art), where he got to grips for a short time with tachisme. During a scholarship to Paris in 1973 he professed to the play of festive colour that had always been within him as his Arab heritage. If the cipher of Damascus is present in his work, then as a spiritual attitude, as an invisible visual structure, as a secret within the brushwork, as transcendence.
So much to the subjective, local and hermetic elements. What about the “internationally comprehensible vocabulary”? There is a constant in Marwan’s half a century of art. It is the head – we might also say the face, the countenance. The head as the site of the ultimate questions. The three parts of one of the most important novels of the 20th century, Elias Cannetti’s “Auto-da-Fé” are entitled “A Head without a World”, “Headless World” and “The World in the Head”. Marwan conceives of the head as a world, as a landscape of the soul, as the great orb of the universe. An arena of love and melancholy, because the eyes, with or without pupils, are always turned inwards, at once glowing and rejecting. Marwan has refined this central motif over many decades, and despite its limitation in terms of content it reflects his entire artistic range. It culminates in the series “99 Heads”, that incomparable collection of graphic works which may certainly be described as a quintessence of visual invention and technical mastery. As if in a myriad of reflections and visual similes, Marwan meditates here on the basic human state of being, bringing forth deeply valid statements about vulnerability, fear or timidity, but also about self-confidence and unreserved solidarity. The capacity for life of Marwan’s heads is continually astounding; they stand for the whole body and thus for the human being.
In this connection we should remember that the head is one of the main themes of 20th-century art. We need only think of the heads of Brancusi, Archipenko, Hans Uhlmann or Horst Antes. The abstract portrait – although in its abstraction never idealised or anonymous – was the result of a long development that started around 1890, when the art of portraiture was released from its mimetic function to concentrate on generalised formulations of the head. This led to the hitherto unimaginable stylisation of the cubist portraits, which radically annulled the imitative requirements of the genre. Such portrayals, including Marwan’s later massive heads, are in the end artistic constructions valid only in the aesthetic realm. But there they are charged with quite a different meaning, which – in Marwan’s case – touches the magical and the mystic.
Are we not all searching for a strong metaphor, for an incarnation? Marwan finds his in the head; he finds the world in the head. And so he paints the head not as a matter of preference, but from within a deeper, more passionate desire to display and explain the world. His continual return to the heads from other motifs – from the iridescent still lives, in which objects lead a dramatic life of their own; from the marionettes, the projection surface for a sensuously liberated form of absolute painting – reflects a wish to convey his most concentrated description of the world. He varies and reiterates his motifs; he reiterates the world. If we look at these heads for a long time, letting them into us until they let us in, we enter an intermediate realm, somewhere between archaic stillness and outward sorrow – a silent scream.
Perhaps this is what the American poet Clayton Eshleman wanted to express in his poem about Marwan’s “Faces”:
“… the human face …
is a kind of rug before its shape
is fixed –
in Marwan’s work –
in a between that is not
a mystical point between us
but a depth between the deathmask of the covering
Persona and peeled of skin.”
This “between”, which is also a depth, speaks of a tension – we might also say ambivalence or duality – present in all Marwan’s work periods. It struck me as an essential quality of his paintings when I saw them for the first time in the Pudelko Gallery in Bonn in 1973. On exhibition were the large “Facial Landscapes”: flat heads on cushions, emerging from sheets, some with very transparent veils; strangely isolated, inhibited people with problematic identities. It was as if they had been painted with a soft anger. They swayed between masculine and feminine, between revealing and concealing, between the fear of loneliness and the longing thereafter. And Marwan’s paintings carry such ambivalences to this day.
In certain periods of work this duality is inherent to the visual construction. In 1963/64 he painted a number of pictures with two amorphous figures: monsters washed up onto a grey land under a black sky, the atmosphere leaden. This doubling is now reoccurring in large-format images of two faces, one above the other, like reflections in a dividing line of water, or side by side, the one head sometimes turned away and leaning on its counterpart. Marwan entitles these dual heads “The Friend”, which in Arabic is also an expression for death. The head facing us is painted in countless warm tones – dabbings of red, yellow, orange and ochre that set the surface in motion, giving it a rhythm that flows around the other face. This second one is paler, grey and whitish and green; lifeless, in fact, a cipher for death embraced by life. It may be erroneous, but at sight of these lifeless heads I had to think of Veronica’s veil – and of the medieval pietas.
The goal of Marwan’s unwavering journey – which was not without its detours and sidetracks and returnings – is the recognition of all that is human. This recognition rejects nihilism. In the imperious, archaic heads of recent years we discern the transformations of a soul that has sought to join with the enigmatic, the unspeakable – perhaps even with the divine.
They are frail, these people. But their weakness – brother to longing – also gives them a strength that can immediately be see in the frontal countenance, the high forehead, the powerful mouth; a strength that hints at something invincible, as if the person dying in the other is yet reborn. We cannot view the paintings of this most recent period without considering their metaphysical dimension. Every face is
“eclipsed by the lightening of the invisible”
as Adonis put it. It is a spiritual adventure. Like other great painters before him – Bonnard, Picasso, Rothko – Marwan has become ever bolder with age. From knots of colour, ephemeral dabs and lines in improvised, gesticulatory brushstrokes, he achieves a fullness that intensifies, in a series of visual metamorphoses, the closer we come to the painting; a glowing, trembling fullness that stands for a reconciliation of the self and the world, of the visible world and a different world.
What do I mean by this? Marwan is a painter, first and last. But he is also a mystic whose creative power is based equally in Western and Arab traditions, through which an inner beauty emerges in his paintings. It is a magic that is not static. In the stillness of his images we sense movement; in the emptiness of an eye we apprehend the universe. In this respect his paintings, by giving a reality to the invisible, are very near to poetry. The tracings of the hand endeavour to unlock the voice of the heart – and to join it to the sound of the world.