A Stranger in the World
or, Images for the Thirsty
is the stranger
only among strangers
Marwan’s image world has been a continual source of enchantment to me during the past 25 years. It has always seemed at once strange and familiar. In the sense of Ernst Bloch’s “daydream of a concrete Utopia” it holds a promising foreignness, a magic that envelops the viewer both directly and imperceptibly. For as much as Marwan’s art appears in the sumptuous guise of European painting, it does nothing to conceal its hitherto unseen content. It has its own particular musicality, full of bold, sensuous, rarely heard tone colours. It has an aroma about it that is not of the Occidental world. It conveys a yearning, a quiet, happy melancholy, a deep pain, a cheerful heart – and does so without a trace of literary romancing, but purely through its vividness of colour and form. It is equally of the senses and of the spirit. The viewer coming to Marwan’s paintings for the first time thus responds at a very deep level, and the first spontaneous impressions immediately give rise to the question of the work’s origins and intentions. And the cheapest way of depriving it of its precious mystique would be to refer to the origins of its creator in the deserts and oases, the gardens and bazaars of Damascus.
But no, his biography will concern us later. At present it would only be the key to the antechamber of the mystery contained within Marwan’s art. Becoming unconditionally involved in Marwan’s images means entering into an instinctive and unexpectedly intimate dialogue. This can startle now and then, as we are not necessarily prepared for such a thing when encountering works of art. At the very least we are surprised, before his paintings, to find ourselves carrying on a lonely conversation – be it unwanted or unconscious – about ourselves. At first, without any foreknowledge, a curiously moving foreignness in Marwan’s work tells us of loss and of lack, of lack too in ourselves. For the yearning revealed in his paintings is not solely the artist’s own; everyone carries it within them, and is moved in the reminiscence. Nevertheless this remembered hope for a different or better life is, by its very nature, sited differently in each individual, and is at the same time an individual oasis for the thirsty. Art – always Utopian, i.e. truthful, in dimension – reminds us here of the thirst we all have for the past and future, and also enables us to recognise that the present is not yet a place of fulfilment. Art always reminds us of the lost paradise, but preserves it for us as a treasure – as a promise that on our journey through life becomes a duty.
The wonder is – and here we find a first reliable guide through this alien world – that although Marwan has obviously travelled very widely in his artistic wanderings of almost fifty years, he has always remained entirely true to himself. Even when he seemed to be losing his way, not knowing his path, when the deserts were wide and the oases rare – even then a pattern can be discerned, which to the artist may at times have seemed muddled, but in retrospect always proved to be part of a greater, more far-reaching, meaningful order. This creates trust in oneself, even in despair, and although it may not sooth the most pressing unease, it encourages the taking of new departures. It is as if Marwan had known all along the truth of Bloch’s apparently simple maxim: “I am. But I do not have myself. By this we eventually become.”1 But this is a European interpretation and probably does not do justice to the issue of foreignness.
Nevertheless, what Marwan paints – and of course how he paints it – shows the degree to which he has always remained true to himself, this “I am,” and the hunger and thirst with which he continues his never-ending search, this “But I do not have myself.” And how he recognised early on that there is no fixed goal and no final place, but that we carry within us our own living home – which perhaps we only reach through extensive inner growth – that hopeful yet binding promise, “By this we eventually become.” Not alone, but in dialogue with “You, the world,” as Paul Klee put it. Or with that consciousness that we are, within the span of birth and death, an inseparable and necessary part of creation.
Marwan paints human images, entirely from within the atmosphere of the moment, again and again, inexhaustible images, with a vividness and depth in which also the unspeakable can be said and the hitherto unseen reveals itself. There are a few still lives, but only a few. They are keenly imbued with sensuous appropriation, and in this way effect a vivification of apparently immobile reality. Thus a lifeless marionette, endowed with feelings through the act of painting, becomes a human image. This counterpart to the self – once again, “You, the world” – is then as tempting and consoling, as provocative, coquette, charming, yearning, as rejecting and embracing, as raptly and broodily listening within – and as fearfully, tentatively and joyfully fulfilled – as one’s own self on turning to this “You”.
Marwan painted only a very few landscapes – occasionally with figures – early on, during his youth in and around Damascus. Later he no longer needed them. Not only because he carries these images within him, and not because the landscapes of his youth – and of the Orient in general – are so precious to him that he does not dare touch on the memory. No, he does not need to paint any more landscapes since he has been able to capture as a matter of course all the sensuous experience of nature in his human images – and not only in his “Facial Landscapes”.
The human being, the silent life of things, the inner landscape – Marwan’s artistic cosmos consists of these few familiar and quite simple themes. But what is seemingly few is in reality all-encompassing and of as inexhaustible a variety as nature itself, as endlessly broad and as troublingly dense as the landscape, touched by the eternal moment – and particularly so during the past two decades, in which his three great themes have become almost exclusively concentrated on the “Head” pictures, on these landscapes of the soul.
To this day Marwan has remained a stranger in the world. Certainly not only because he emigrated from the Orient to make his life in the Occident. Foreignness is everyone’s mystery, for through it we comprehend life. But for Marwan foreignness is not only existentially determined, but is also the vanishing point of desire. It is precisely from a distance that the familiar becomes painfully and delectably foreign. Marwan lives this foreignness and all his paintings tell of it. Foreignness is the door to everything, as it is always a matter of crossing boundaries. The overcoming of foreignness is happiness, is an unveiling and a search for the truth. But one cannot always be near to things, and renewed distance reinstates the foreignness, although one now knows more. Distance is now a veil concealing a mystery that we know and which arouses a sense of longing. This swing of the emotional pendulum, these experiences of nearness and distance, hope and fulfilment, painful loss and happy recollection, seeking and finding, this ceaseless shuttle back and forth, this constantly repeating movement within our lives of mind and heart, is magically translated in Marwan’s painting into a direct vividness.
I got to know Marwan before we actually met. It must have been 1970 when Werner Haftmann, the former director of the Nationalgalerie, integrated into a re-hanging two curious watercolours. As if in a distorting mirror they showed faces stretched out wide, brown in brown, a little ochre, some yellow perhaps. I didn’t want to have seen any other colours; I simply didn’t allow myself to be touched. More correctly, on no account did I want to allow myself be moved. Full of youthful prejudice, entirely contemporary, my head and eyes full of pop art, happenings and Fluxus, I was taken aback by the works of this Syrian in Berlin. I felt them to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; for me they were deeply old-fashioned. Even Haftmann, my revered and honoured teacher, could not open my eyes to the fact that they were anything other than conventional in their traditional technique. Another painting joined them a little later, another “Facial Landscape” from 1972. I remained blind, and withdrew; I closed myself off from something that doubtless had already moved me, as it remained strong in my memory. Yet I did not delve into the particular experience I had involuntarily and spontaneously rejected, as if a danger threatened, as if someone was coming to close, unbidden.
I have seen it frequently in others, and it still applies today: people encountering Marwan’s paintings for the first time often close themselves off defensively – or succumb. For with these works you cannot remain uninvolved and half-hearted. But if you truly open yourself to them they penetrate the soul. Prejudices, particularly when armed with youthful arrogance and relative inexperience, can be persistent and unwavering, for they are needed to hide insecurity, uncertainty and ignorance. It was not until 1975 that I visited him – I was 28 – bringing my scepticism and prejudices with me.2 It was in his studio in Schmargendorfer Straße.
When I left, after who knows how many hours had passed like a moment, I was truly enchanted. Yet the studio had nothing particularly exciting about it. Marwan welcomed me and offered me tea. Tea comes first, to this day. And then he simply showed me his pictures in the wide, initially empty room. I remember our conversation as slow and hesitant at first – but there was also much eloquent silence in looking. He didn’t show the paintings in the way I was used to, one after another, leaning up against the wall or hung. No, Marwan placed them – and this is still his method – carefully within the space, supported at only one point by a table or chair. Then comes another, and another, each lightly touching its neighbour, to create a fragilely balanced panorama of images fanning through the room. And if there is time, and if you can’t see enough, a second or even third row is added. I finally stood amongst the paintings as if in a garden of countless flowers; I was quite still, and felt reminded of Kleist: “As if one’s eyelids had been cut away.”
The effect of this fragile presentation is that the paintings are experienced as particularly precious, for they do in fact make an appearance – as if for only a moment. They can’t stand up like that for long (thinks the inexperienced studio visitor), always in danger of falling over and getting damaged. I didn’t understand, that first time – but experienced intensely nonetheless – that this method of presentation exactly corresponds to the content, form and character of Marwan’s image world. For the paintings themselves are indeed like apparitions. They are quite ephemeral and vulnerable in the swift notation of their equally fleeting and careful brushwork, and the viewer is attuned to the tenderness they contain, as this is matched by their handling. The images hold something temporal and transitory; the viewer needs time to get into them. But as soon as comprehension occurs they withdraw elusively into quite open, loosely or hardly connected traces of painting, and the singular, even pressing nearness of the faces and figures thus depicted is additionally heightened.
Despite all concentration, the studio visitor is subtly urged into a fluctuating, hasty, almost cursory, subliminal form of looking. And when at times a sheer profusion of painterly events tumbles out of these quiet images, the eye is driven by a certain unease from painting to painting, wanting to take in everything at once, to entirely absorb them, to look its fill and to quench its thirst for colour.
In 1973 Marwan lived for a year in Paris on a scholarship from the Cité des Arts. Here his painting took a bold turn under the overpowering influence of Cézanne, Monet and Manet, of Courbet and Soutine. I did not know then that for Marwan 1973 had been the momentous fulfilment of a youthful dream But let us take the opportunity of following the stages in the development of Marwan’s painting this spiritual and sensuous adventure in a more or less ordered review.
In his extensive Arabic monograph on the artist, Abdel Rachman Munif has Marwan relate his childhood and youth in Damascus with such intelligence and vividness that Western ears too can understand that this world has been lost forever.3 Munif, also telling something of his own story, writes in such a way that the narration, although it remains anchored in the naturalness of the everyday, feels like a wonderful fairytale, imbued with the overpowering aroma of flowers, fruits and spices. Everything gleams in a shimmering light, in the bright colours of the gardens, bazaars and clothing; everything is imbued with the soft, far-off sounds of a bygone age: here the cry of a carter or water seller, the call of the muezzin, there the rattling of a barrow, the splash of a fountain, the song of a bird, a high-pitched laugh, the clatter of horses’ hooves on the roads, more muffled under trees and silent in the sands of the desert – Marwan’s world. But it has not only vanished, in the way every childhood becomes a dream; the loss is greater, much greater, for the world Munif relates has been submerged by the political confusion of the Middle East, and the old Syria almost crushed between the burden of history and the destructiveness of the modern era. Yet the ancient dream of the holy city of – even then – times long past is still held true in people’s consciousness: “By Allah, they spoke the truth who said that if there were a paradise on earth it were without doubt Damascus; and if it were in heaven, then Damascus were its earthly counterpart,” wrote the Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubayr on 5 July 11844 about this thousand-year-old melting pot of peoples and languages, cultures and religions.
Marwan has been able to preserve a whole series of paintings from his youth. Aside from portraits of his sister they are above all landscapes. To the Western eye they show an astonishing confidence and freshness along with the understandable awkwardness of the early attempt and much atmosphere, which is captured in lively, open brushstrokes. As if Marwan had already seen impressionist paintings, or knew the fragmentary style of Cézanne’s unfinished pictures or the shimmering transparency of certain works of Bonnard or Vuillard. He may have seen them in Western books or art journals, although scarcely in colour reproductions, and if so, then ones of poor quality. But how much easier it must have been for this boy to project and dream into these reproductions the colours of his own world and thus to awaken a yearning to see the originals in all their glory, and one day even to be able to paint as wonderfully himself. The longing for Europe, for this alien world, was stirred, and the dream was Paris.
Marwan never seems to have doubted that he would become a painter – that he would follow a career that does not really exist in the Arab world, and for which in Syria at that time there was as good as no professional training. Against this background it is astonishing to see how well he prepared himself for his spiritual journey and his departure for the West. For very soon his painting takes an unexpected and completely different turn – obviously influenced by 20th-century European work, the originals of which he also could not have seen. Where only a short while before his subject matter had been the lifelike, atmospheric depiction of the landscape, the paint dabbed on with a few brushstrokes, suddenly the surface of the paintings is exactly what in reality it actually is: flat. The architecture of the image is made up of a few extended fields of colour placed alongside or opposite one another as if cut out. The simply and clearly ordered colouring of Matisse cannot be overlooked.
But in a work like “The Pitcher”, painted in 1956 when Marwan was 22, he has entirely captured his Middle Eastern world in this Western visual language. Brown and ochre are of course – quite materially and thus almost naturalistically – the condensing into colour of desert and stone and fertile earth. Furrowed by circular movement, the colours fill the entire surface. Space is no longer depicted; everything is flat – as if a hand has brushed through the sandy ground. This close-up view, without a horizon, at the same time depicts the breathtaking, immeasurable expanse of the landscape. And those who live there need little, although what they do need is indispensable: the earthen pitcher, symbolising with its arabesque, curving handle and spout the bubbling flow of precious water; the lemon, embodiment of refreshment, that delicious fruit wrung from the barren ground with hard work and God’s help. And then the eye, the Eye of Fatima that protects against evil. Allah is near and within everything.
At 23 Marwan painted a picture that can be seen to prefigure what was to come. It shows the rear view of a yellow girl, her long black hair drawn into a severe braid that vertically divides her back. She sits on a black stone in a starry, anthracite night. That is all. A dream image. An image of human longing. The heat of the day has caught itself up in the girl’s body like a constant blinding glow; the night is cooling. Everything is clothed in mystery, for the image shows nothing. The girl sits turned away, sunk within herself – we are observers projecting our own dreams onto her. Once again we see the strict, entirely free, flat painterly
colour-architecture that we know from Matisse. Yet once again it is all authentically imbued with impressions from the far-off, to us foreign, Arab world – even though we are scarcely able to say how Marwan does it. The European – how could it be otherwise? – naturally thinks of Caspar David Friedrich’s repoussoir figures, which draw the gaze into the painted space. But in his paintings – in the European spirit – longing is attached to an object, such as the symbolic ship, whereas in Marwan’s image it is absorbed into the blackness of the firmament, as abstract as Islam itself, that religion of the word.
It is different in the painting “Two Friends”, in which cipher-like notations on a dark background – a bird in a tree, a small flock of birds in the night sky, a sailing boat on a calm lake – softly evoke the two women’s peaceful harmony with nature, as if in a miniature from an old illuminated manuscript. But ambivalence and mystery are here too. If the one – with her glowing cheeks and curving open lips – seems flooded with the ardent longing of a blossoming desire, the other – with her pale yellow face – stands for the omnipresence of death, which embraces us in the midst of life. The scene is framed by a delicate pattern of yellow lines, like a gateway, a window – a bordering world – that distantly reminds one of the glittering gold mosaics of certain mosques.
If the subject matter of both paintings is painful longing, hopeful anticipation and human loneliness, these atmospheres are above all carried by a harmony with the surrounding world. It is a harmony with oneself which, although bearing witness to an integral identity – “I am” – is not in possession of the world. It is already touched by a first, gnawing sense of inadequacy – “But I do not have myself.” And in this lightly fissured harmony Marwan does now turn towards his departure. Setting out to satisfy his longing for the colours of the north and the great painters of that foreign world, he exchanges it for the more painful yearning for the “oriental twilight, at the edge of the Syrian steppes, with its silky orange, violet and emerald green.”5 And for this reason among others this “I am” will soon, for several years, appear to be entirely lost, and very little will remain of that hopeful atmosphere of departure into one’s future – of “becoming.”
Fear Eats the Soul
It would take a while before he actually reached Paris. In September of 1957 – after a long sea journey to Genoa, and via a detour through Munich – he arrived, more or less by chance – in Berlin, the city still lying desolate, marked by destruction, bomb craters and fields of rubble. In the class of his teacher Hann Trier at the College of Visual Arts he found German art informel, American abstract impressionism, French abstraction lyrique and tachisme. As a stylistic direction, and in the attitude to the world it expressed, this global artistic language determined everything at that time. It influenced the way artists saw themselves, gave rise to a concept of the image as open and fragmentary and encouraged a high degree of poetic license in regard to the realities of the world captured in these abstract works.
In its spontaneous protocol of gesticulatory markings, and solely through autonomous painterly means, this type of painting endeavoured to create a sensual response to the invisible inner world. An uncontrolled painterly dynamic and a hot-and-cold tension in the use of colour were intended to translate into resounding visuality an unsparing psychograph of artistic existence, with its unplumbed depths and almost unnameable emotions – an idea of the image as entirely immaterial. This required of Marwan a radical break with his previous image world – and much hard work – and may even have been accompanied by disappointment at no longer having the means to give touching clarity to his feeling for life. But he learned how to understand colour more exactly as a value in itself, to allow it its own life while mastering it step by step, to discover its autonomous expressive language, independent of the world of objects, and to research the spatially suggestive power of colouristic constellation. The nuanced attitude to colour would later become the backbone of his painting – that was the hope. Damascus was not forgotten, but unreachably distant. He earned his living as a furrier’s assistant, and generally painted at night.
Marwan has only preserved a few of his paintings from this time. At around 1960 he had for the moment acquired a steady foundation. Strictly limited to a few colours – mainly black, white and grey tones, sometimes shimmering mother-of-pearl – his images have an exceptional painterly compression, as if something physical is urging its manifestation on the canvas. Space – or, more exactly, visual plasticity – is developed entirely through the overlaying and interweaving of colour. There is no perspective, no depiction – and yet there is an almost desirous carnality, and always an intimation of landscape.
And very soon there is a distinct sense of lack, of the inadequacy of the abstract image, of Marwan’s unsatisfied hunger for the tangible vividness of poetically heightened depiction. It was the same for some of his fellow students. At first there was the familiar youthful refusal to imitate the fathers, and thus to seek mastery in an opposite field. But then there were other and to Marwan alien, very German reasons. In 1961 and 1962 Eugen Schönebeck and Georg Baselitz sent an expressive, staccato outpouring of suffering into the world with their now legendary, jointly authored Pandemonic Manifesto, which articulated with the poetic backing of Artaud and Lautréamont the mood of an entire generation. A generation that saw itself in tragic terms, burdened with the weight of German history and conscious of the responsibility of remembering and reawakening the nightmares of their parents. In their eyes abstract painting seemed unsuited to the task of creating the counter-images required6 – despite the example of those such as Wols, or of Fautrier’s political “Otages” series.
In his personal search for a new figurative painting this of course was not Marwan’s impetus. As a “lost individual” he carried something quite different within him – a painful tension of the soul demanding authentic expression, dissolution, understanding, ease. He must have felt an icy loneliness during these years, filled with a longing for affection, security and belonging.
Marwan was part of the circle of artists around Schönebeck and Baselitz. He took part in their discussions, came to understand an obviously parallel if quite differently weighted and foreign form of disaffection with the world and encountered a related poetic eye yet in his language and cultural consciousness he stood quite outside this circle.
An example of this groping, transitional search between the worlds of abstraction and figurativeness, that for him were so differently rooted culturally, is “Figuration”, of 1963?/?64, whose figures can barely be deciphered. But the image awakens sombre associations. To understand it one needs to recall the yellow girl with the black braid. We find the same topos: a nocturnal horizon, now with a reclining figure. But the sky is no longer bedecked with stars; it is burdensome and impenetrable. And the figure – painted in the abstract-psychological manner of tachisme – is a muddled pile of raw flesh: two entwined human bodies, even, torn limb from limb? Everything is ambivalent, held in an echoing silence. It is the epitome of destruction, suffering, injury and mortality – and in its deep nocturnal darkness it reminds one from afar of the black paintings of the deaf Goya. “Untitled” of 1964 takes up the same subject matter in apparently more concrete terms. The bloody mountain of torn flesh now vaguely evokes an organic form with widely gaping jaws – a stranded, all-devouring leviathan. Above it a mythical figure hovers threateningly in the dusky gloom.
Considering what was still to come in Marwan’s image world, two things should be remembered here: first, that the lively, intensely animated yet differentiated, purely abstract mode of painting is restricted to the nightmarish bodies, which have devoured everything
living, literally and visibly carrying it within them. The remaining scenery, in contrast, with its silver dawn on a far horizon and the black remains of the night above, is quite still, painted tone in tone in quiet, subdued colours without any sign of life. Content – paralysing emptiness and wild, animalistic greed – is congruent here with its mode of painting. The second thing is the unusual form of composition, which Marwan will not take up again for decades, but which bears the seed of a later, surprising visual discovery: the division of the image into two for the purpose of a double depiction – like a reflection. And, despite the landscape theme, Marwan characteristically succeeds in retaining his clear, flat visual architecture – still distantly related to Matisse – in an entirely transformed guise.
In the mid 1960s his path becomes clearer, and so do his paintings. In the extensive cycle depicting human forms, individual figures and couples now face the viewer in unsparing, challenging
directness. They all stand in an oppressively empty space, from which the outside world has entirely vanished, and are all in such dire straits that their bodies, and particularly their faces, are deformed, as if under pressure. They are mute, as if hermetically sealed by a glass wall. They seem enclosed in silence, which they attempt to break with an aggressive sign language bordering on the obscene7 Surreal disturbances are inserted into the images in the form of a second, fragmented figure, as if hidden by the first – bodiless arms embrace the hips; the naked leg of an otherwise invisible figure appears between those of a man; a hand emerging from the numinous background sticks its finger into an eye. But there is no narrative. The figures persist in their silent outcry, even if they are not alone. Worlds lie between these couples and the “Two Friends” painted ten years earlier in Damascus.
But we should not deceive ourselves. Although this cycle of work contains the most self-portraits in the representational sense – although they are no less “surreal” than the other paintings – these human images, wrung painfully from reality with hallucinatory clairvoyance, are not at all simply the individualistic interpretations of a lost and foreign loner. “They concentrate and focus the psychological state of a society by making ironic use of exactly the absurdity and apparent unreality this society embodies”8 – and are thus related to those “absurd” human images that Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee were putting on stage at the time.
Gift and Fulfilment
Around 1970, Marwan was able to calm the disturbed, traumatised world of his “melodramatic figuration.”9 In his “Facial Landscapes”, he zooms in like a film camera on his forms, whose tormented inner world is thus revealed. The facial close-up alone is the intimate subject matter of the paintings. And this visual closeness is also a literal affection and closeness that allows the longings, joys and hopes engraved in these faces to appear undisguised. The terrible emotional wounds of the previous works seem almost to have been washed away by this tenderly cautious and touching nearness.
Having observed how Marwan, in the images with the mythical creatures, placed his painterly expressiveness in the formation of the bodies, we can see a similar tendency in the pictures of human figures. In contrast to the paralysing, silent vortex of the interior, the heightened vivification his painting achieves is entirely concentrated on the figure, and above all on the face. Now, in the “Facial Landscapes”, with flowing brushwork and a soft, tender colouration, he allows himself – as if liberated – an extraordinarily nuanced, expressive, pulsating and emotional language. The subject matter is also a means of further developing his painting. And it is anything other than by chance that Marwan once again recalls the variety and expressive power of the abstract, gesticulatory colouring of the art informel of his student days. Carefully and cautiously, yet with obviously clear intentions, he makes use of colour in a way that is quite removed from all figurative associations in order to let the depiction emerge from within the qualities of the paint itself. He varnishes, overpaints, allows the broken brown tones to flow into one another, very occasionally heightening with white or a clear primary colour. Everything shimmers, is flooded with light; there are hardly any fixed contours. As if floating, the colours weave themselves into a silky consistency. And this is why these faces are also landscapes – landscapes of the soul and of the mind. But, surprisingly, they are also landscapes of dreamlike memory. In almost every painting the great soaring skull of the horizon also reminds one distantly and unexpectedly of the Qassyun towering above Damascus, when at dusk, after the heat of the day, a gentle breeze flutters over the city lights, bringing with it the scent of the awakening night, and happiness is so very near.
If in the series of human figures Marwan had often painted obvious self-portraits – and if others from this group could vaguely be identified as his own likeness in the expressive excess of their depiction – in the “Facial Landscapes” everything begins to interpenetrate – free portrayal and authentic portrait. At times the outer similarity disappears entirely in favour of a form of representation that follows only the autonomous law of the image and the precision of painterly expression. And yet the viewer always feels that these pictures are a true likeness of Marwan, of his inner world. The portrayal no longer requires outer similarity, but is – on a completely different, mental-emotional level – the epitome of the self. The image is here to a certain extent already quite abstract, which is why there is no necessity for wanting to recognise Marwan’s portrait in them. In the transformation through painting, these images gain a universality beyond any attachment to the individuality of the person portrayed.
Marwan was obviously well prepared for the second great formative departure of his life. In 1973 he received a scholarship for the Cité des Arts and was able to realise the long-held dream of his youth. In Paris colour is returned to him the colour he had brought with him as a precious memory from the edge of the Syrian steppes, yet had not yet really dared to use, that silky orange, violet and emerald green. For remembering them with longing is quite a different matter from being able to paint them.
But the encounter with French impressionism – so easily held to be a mere stylistic direction – and then with the old masters – such as Velazquez, whom Marwan much admired – and finally with Western 20th-century modernism, freed him from any inhibition about joining the feast of colour. His paintings now take on a cheerful musicality in a free, dancing notation of generally pure colour.
In his “Veil Paintings” he quite directly takes up the theme of concealment and revelation mentioned at the start of this article. Here in Paris it gains an almost Mozartian cheerfulness and wisdom. The images come out to meet the viewer in an urgent, suggestive plasticity; they demand a dialogue. Bedecked in light veils, they tempt – often in androgynous ambivalence – and withdraw in an alternating game of attraction and evasion. Longing for the entirely other – longing indeed based in otherness – is here bathed in soft addictive colour.
In Paris the Facial Landscapes and the Veil Paintings coalesce into the first of the Heads, that in the coming years and decades will become Marwan’s almost sole theme. The treasure trove of freely used colour was brought back to Berlin, to unfold over the following years into a magnificent splendour. Whether painting alongside the Heads his few still lives during the 1970s, or around 1980 the first of the Marionettes, he is always concerned with cultivating the garden of purely abstract, gesticulatory painting in such a way that with it he can translate everything i.e. the unity of world and experience into a pure visual poetry that moves the spirit and senses. The still life is an important instrument in formulating this aim in a more differentiated way. For here the concern is to vivify dead material in such a way that in a piece of fruit, a bowl, a jug as with Cézanne’s Natures mortes or Morandi’s receptacles the human drama of love and death, longing and fulfilment, hope and mortality is made visible through tangible sensory experience.
Visiting him in his studio, we have already attempted to grasp the characteristic contradiction that although Marwan’s paintings posses an extraordinary concentration – i.e. great exactitude in their apparently lightly flowing brushstrokes – the gaze is seduced into what was described above as a form of cursory observation. It is not a superficial form of looking that is meant here, and various aspects of Marwan’s art are caught up in it. This way of reading the images exactly corresponds to the way they are created, which is characterised equally by great speed and the need for time. For they are painted over again and again – sometimes after many years, face over face – so that a countenance apparently full of composure contains many others, just as our own is the result of years of transformation. And yet it can alter in expression from moment to moment, showing many faces in one. Marwan’s paintings are very real, like life. How long a plant needs before the bud appears, and how quickly it withers! Here we find the central motivating tension in Marwan’s art: the attempt, familiar down the ages, to seize the transitory moment and retain it forever. Now we can better understand why Marwan’s painting, with its magnificence of colour, encompassing the “silky orange, violet and emerald green of the oriental twilight,” is able to preserve all his yearning memories – and why it is so deeply true.
I was able to experience this for myself when in 1996 Marwan began to paint my portrait. Applying his art of lively human portrayal to the task of recognisable depiction was not only a concern of his early self-portraits; it also occupied him during the following decades and did so increasingly so until today. This was the first time I had the opportunity of observing Marwan at work. I was allowed to sit comfortably; we listened to music – Arabian, classical and early music – conversed, even drank tea. But concentration was also required of the model in retaining his posture, although not in every detail. Painting, for Marwan, is of course a physical act; not in applying the paint, but in the back-and-forth of looking, which has not only to do with the eyes. He constantly had to move away from the canvas to obtain an exact impression of a shading, a fall of light, the form of the nose or eyebrows. And then the “right” colour had to be selected – and the table on which his paints lie in veritable piles is in itself a distracting feast for the eyes. A short hesitation, a mixing of tones, another look, no, the colour isn’t right, renewed mixing and dabbing – and then the image requires something quite different, is no longer painted at the top, but at the bottom or the side, and for this Marwan needs other colours. It is a wonder that what is seen is not lost again in between looking, mixing and painting. As indeed it sometimes is, and the whole procedure is begun again. Sometimes a small detail will be reworked repeatedly, while another is set at a stroke once and for all. At each break I saw a completely different painting, yet always recognised myself. And at each new sitting – which usually began with doubts as to whether anything should be altered at all – the painting was completely transformed and taken in a new direction. It was a marvel, although coupled with a painful feeling of loss – as the earlier versions would never be seen again. The first portrait – on which he worked in at least seven sittings until 1998 – was at first of a light, transparent appearance and had much magic about it. But it then compressed into an image containing many of my faces simultaneously, most of which I am able to recognise. Other people – some of them good friends – have their difficulties and need time, as they probably know other faces of mine, and perhaps not those known to Marwan. It remains astounding how he is able, despite the similarity contained in the depiction, to remain true to his autonomous painting and to allow the portrayal, from approximation to exactitude, to emerge from it.
But there is something else bound up with this complex temporal contradiction in Marwan’s art – something that will also be seen to have deeply human roots – and that is a quality manifest in most of his paintings, and in all the faces and heads. The work addresses the sacred – and yet is also of extreme, even despairing, modernity. We can come to an ideal understanding of this through Giacometti, who in all his sculptures dealt with the very contemporary problem of the abolition of perspective, the cancellation of the very near and the very distant. From far away I see a figure clearly, but no details; from nearby I see every detail exactly, but no longer have the whole picture. But in reality the person Giacometti wishes to portray consists of both these aspects of our perception, and thus there are tiny sculptures that remain in the distance even when near to the viewer, and tall ones revealing a near view even from afar.
Marwan’s “Head” paintings are similar. He too paints tiny and giant formats – with the same intensity, the same inexhaustible variety of expression – and the same contradictory simultaneity of proximity and distance. We meet this phenomenon particularly in the heads, which were always portrayed in close-up, and over the years – incredibly – have moved even nearer to the viewer. Because they are in fact not “portrayed”, but emerge naturally and spontaneously from a mode of abstract painting, we can only see them with complete clarity when we encounter them from a distance, when the great closeness of expression in the images becomes apparent. As we move towards them, they gradually dissolve and elude our grasp, unfolding instead a shimmering, radiant, flickering, blossoming, fading field of sumptuous individual colourations, every detail of which holds the proximity just experienced. This is also how Marwan is able to depict more than just the person in his paintings, and why all memory, all longing, all despair and all certainty are caught in his sensuous network of colour and the handwriting-like flow of his brushwork. Thus we actually do encounter a coming into possession of the world in the sense of Ernst Bloch: “I am. But I do not have myself. By this we eventually become.”
Between the Worlds
I had the good fortune of accompanying Marwan on a number of his journeys to Damascus and through Syria, to Amman and through Jordan. Despite all the modern, hectic bustle of the cities and their inhabitants, it was often possible to discover traces of Marwan’s bygone world, which he carries alive within him, and indeed incarnates. Commenting on one of my texts on Marwan, my old teacher Werner Haftmann once wrote: “That is very authentic: this mild Syrian’s response in a European language to what he carries within him – the baroque and the desert, together with the lonely sensuousness of the Bedouin.”10 That captures it exactly, but not only Marwan’s image world. For his far-ranging journey through life has and how could it be otherwise? torn him from his biographical home. When he is with the friends and companions of his youth, or with his family, he is welcomed with joy like a long-lost son. But for those of them who know him well he carries something foreign within him. For he is the one who has gone out into the wide world, only to return for short periods. With his mild Bedouin soul he has brought something Oriental into Western art; he has mastered the language of European art even in the face of its glorious tradition of painting like no other, and yet has steadfastly related the wonders of the world from which he comes. And so he is gratefully admired, while also having become a foreigner. For it is not easy for his Arab friends to recognise in a foreign visual language what is so familiar to them. And amidst the admiration for his work in the Arab world there is scarcely a feeling for the foreignness Marwan experienced within himself in Europe and which Europe at times compels him to experience. In Berlin this is different, of course; and also in Paris, where he is held in high esteem from the Institut du Monde Arabe to the Bibliothèque Nationale. In these cities his foreignness to both worlds is valued.
Marwan has become the master from a strange world, and remained a stranger in the world. He has given us all his marvellous paintings, in which humanity’s inherent dreams are exemplified and preserved, enchanting us with a reminiscent, yearning, consoling magic.
1 Ernst Bloch, Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie I, Frankfurt 1968,
p. 11, English translation from Rainer E. Zimmermann,
The Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, Internet article.
2 I “only” went to him – as I did to all the other artists Werner Haftmann had supported during his all too short seven years at the Nationalgalerie – to beg for a gift to the museum in honour of its director.
3 Abdel Rachman Munif, Rehlat al Hayad w’al Fan, Damascus 1998, p. 12-19.
4 Translated from Johannes Odenthal, Syrien Hochkulturen zwischen Mittelmeer und Arabischer Wüste, DuMont Kunst-Reiseführer, Cologne 1995, p.70.
5 From the text of Marwan’s invitation to his 65th birthday on 31 January 1999.
6 See Jörn Merkert, Laudatio auf Eugen Schönebeck, Festschrift für den Fred Thieler Preis für Malerei 1992, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin 1992, p. 4?-?14.
7 See my detailed analysis of this workgroup in Jörn Merkert, Marwans unbekanntes Frühwerk, in the exhibition catalogue Marwan Frühe Aquarelle, Galerie Michael Hasenclever, Munich 1990.
9 “pathetische Figuration”, Eberhard Roters, foreword to the exhibition catalogue Marwan, Galerie Springer, Berlin 1967, p. 20-21.
10 Letter to the author from Werner Haftmann, 19.1.1977, translated from Jörn Merkert, Kadousch oder die Verwandlung Fragmentarische Überlegungen zu Marwans Bildern, in the exhibition catalogue Marwan, Kunstverein Darmstadt, Verlag für zeitgenössische Kunst, Berlin 1984, p. 19.
Translation: Michael Turnbull
Copyright Jörn Merkert
from the catalogue Marwan Damascus-Berlin-Damascus