Marwan’s unknown early work
Jörn Merkert

Today, Marwan is an internationally renowned artist and personality. In Paris, London, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Ramallah and especially Berlin, his name is connected to a pictorial world which, in all its painterly diversity, has nonetheless remained focused for decades now upon handling almost exclusively the human countenance, or ‘the head’, in unending variations full of surprising pictorial results and discoveries. In other paintings, marionettes – dead things – are magically infused with life, thereby constituting a group of works that conjoins his figurative pieces with the comparatively rare still lifes. They impress without exception, particularly through manifold metamorphoses of the pictorial expression, and they beguile the beholder by means of an altogether unparalleled expressive richness and through suggestive transitions in the palette. Indeed, the colour stirs all of the senses, awakens memories of times past, and is interwoven with soothing tones, tantalising fragrances and fleeting associations. As contradictory as each individual experience may be, none of them fail – thanks to their multifaceted nature and, particularly, to the ways in which they overlap (a simultaneity of asynchrony) – to establish a holistic totality that reverberates among the depths of our sentiments.

Marwan’s work has evolved over the course of a long artistic journey, throughout which repetition has always meant transformation, and has always been part of a cautiously progressive but likewise assiduous exploration of the human soul in all of its attunements – of its joys as well as its dramas. Yet, because the roots of his invaluable, so consequential paintings have all too seldom been exhibited, they remain known to only few today. Indeed, his paintings from the early 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s appear, when compared with subsequent work, to be strikingly unfamiliar upon first glance, even outlandish or dramatically dissimilar, as if painted by another artist altogether.

There is no sonority, no alluring buoyancy nor musical gravity to surround us in the expressiveness of the colour; nothing here is loud nor glaring. Nevertheless, Marwan develops at this stage – as a young man! – an exceedingly sensitive, downright infatuating palette. Everything is broken into the tender tones of a grey, an ochre or a brown, or, if need be, a whitish lilac and contrasted with a blackish green, blue-brownish red or orange. Breathless, motionless stillness is present, which cloisters itself up in silence, staving off its beholders to keep them at a safe distance. In charged opposition to this, the picture-planes generate, with their borderless emptiness, a powerful pull, which embraces the beholder without allowing the pictorial space opened up to be described by any conventional coordinates. It is amidst the forlornness of this undefined, intangible and yet – with regard to its magically alluring force – nearly violent space that the human figure is finally placed, left to struggle upon unsure grounds. As though in an attempt to find footing, the sharp contours of the figure dissociate themselves from the numinous exterior.

Placed under the pressure of the emptiness, both body language and gesture squirm defensively together to uphold the figure in palpable consternation. The looming nothingness displays its enthralling, trembling power and infiltrates the very core of the entire figure, which, both in terms of its integral physicality and supplementary apparel, is stretched, distorted and deformed – engulfed in its own presence and imbued, despite all cautiousness, with astoundingly vigorous movement. This occurs not only in the representational portrayal but also in the painterly methodology itself. The broad painting grounds are comprised of intertwining brush strokes that, as though tracelessly interwoven, blur into one another, and are garnered together with acutely tender gradations and soft contrasts. Conversely, the clear contours cause the figures themselves to appear as though severed from the picture plane, their interiors permeated by agitated, convulsive lines – ‘jittery’ even within the disquieted scrawl of the very paint that depicts them.

In an altogether wayward, contradictory manner, these hard-pressed human figures likewise command the pictorial stage with the confidence of actors, who, in silent sign language and with expressive countenances, hold their lonely-grown monologues even when acting in pairs. They rarely refer to one another directly, and, when they do, it is only in order to demonstrate or perform something, or to adopt a convincing pose – one, however, which refrains from narration, or from relating anything in the literary sense. Instead, they appeal to the beholder with absolute immediacy, and with a vehemence that is made all the more demanding in that they appear to direct their attention toward no one other – an impression further emphasised by the beseeching expression of the gazes themselves.

Perhaps initially irritating in this respect is the notion that the gestures and poses can be interpreted as aggressive, even all but obscene, pictorial symbols, through which a forcefully internalised, concealed eroticism is revealed – a sense of desire that is as obsessive as it is sexual. This, however, contradicts all the beseeching melancholy of isolation and loneliness only superficially; indeed, it may well be the paralysing bell of silence itself that has caused this yearning-filled, muted sorrow to enshroud the figures portrayed here. They, in turn, attempt to break through the imprisoning silence with a helpless and thus all the more dramatic kind of sign language. The yearning for communication and affection, toward closeness and tenderness fades away like a mute scream, smothered by an encapsulating hull that is buttressed by desperation – one that isolates and ostracises but likewise affords protection.

Everything is hermetically sealed as though behind a wall of glass, untouchable and yet defencelessly visible, thus exposed after all. This is reflected in the distortion of the figures, both with restraint and painful urgency – above all in the utter distress that has horizontally or vertically stretched the faces, virtually to the point of tearing. With their melancholy-covetous gazes, they manage thus, in a peculiar way, to approach the beholder quite closely from a distance; or they are so unreachably absorbed in themselves, that we are forced to adopt the role of the voyeur. These are images of damaged people who, in their yearning, have not yet entirely lost the knowledge of a life-filled entirety, however – nor the certainty of selfhood nor the hope of liberation. To be sure, it is for this very reason that the gestures, postures and gazes are repeatedly turned so eagerly toward the beholder.

It would be reckless to attribute this pictorialised viewpoint on the emotive sensibilities of contemporary humankind to belonging merely to a solipsistic or purely personal world view of the artist, which would thus appear to be of little relevance. Without any doubt, the beholder is in fact presented with a mirror here, the image of which is legitimised in the radical subjectivity of its expression, precisely through the authenticity of the artist’s experience. These images of humanity are surrounded by the same kind of iciness inherent to the living space inhabited by the theatrical figures of Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee; they consolidate, as though by convergence through a focal point, the mental and spiritual state of a society, costumed here, with ironic refraction, in the same absurdity and seeming irreality with which, in everyday life, the society adorns itself. Something kindred can be found in Peter Handke’s play Kaspar from 1967, which addresses the search for identity and a manipulated process of individual humanization within the bounds of marionette-like contingency as effectuated through societal inducement. The title of another piece by Handke from 1969 could verily be employed as an overall heading to describe this entire group of works by Marwan: The Inner World of the Outer World of the Inner World; the encounter and involvement with these paintings shapes itself as a Ride Across Lake Constance (Handke), across the beholder’s own world of experience.

Indices toward the contemporaneity of like perceptions of reality such as these are, within other artistic disciplines as well, important and meaningful, at least to the extent that they are not made to serve as evidence for temporal limitations or insularity. It must not be overlooked that – even when any examination of this notion is beyond the scope of the present discourse – this sort of image of humankind, which employs the self to examine the problem of identity crisis, is historically rooted, not only through its pictorial but also literary allusions, and indeed once burgeoned into what would constitute one of the central epiphanic visions of the twentieth century. We find its beginnings in the poetry of Lautréamont and, above all, Beaudelaire, who later proved, having early propounded a modernist world view, to provide Surrealism with a driving force, through which the psyche, the unconscious and subconscious were shifted into the artistic debate. Unmistakeably, a culmination in these developments was engendered by the writings of Antonin Artaud, which was elevated among many artists from the 1960s to comprise a virtual bible of the intellect – especially in Berlin.

For, Marwan stands, with his pictorial world, isolated but certainly not alone. With regard to the artistic developments of that specific time in West Germany, however, one is bound to note that this particular manifestation of the zeitgeist in painting existed solely to the western side of the wall that had bisected the city. It is only there that such elegiac, anguish-afflicted, figurative visions fuelled by melancholy pathos are to be found – in Georg Baselitz, Eugen Schönebeck and Marwan. Indeed, the three of them not only knew each other but were close friends, and enjoyed an intensive, personal, intellectual exchange with one another. Their paintings from this period speak, together, of a halved, inadequate and damaged life, without any recourse to platitudinously literary, illustrative symbolisation of the pictorial means. Rather, they succeed by means of an expressively excessive mode of visualisation in exposing societal contingencies and dependencies. They describe, from the standpoint of negativity and on the basis of a lack of totality, a utopian vision of identity, akin to that presented in Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope; the artists knew, not from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia but from first-hand, lived experience, that ‘there is no real way of living right when living in what is wrong.’

Writing at the very time of these works’ emergence but with a nonetheless astoundingly distanced and thus particularly insightful gaze, the art historian Eberhard ­Roters, whose concise contribution was published in the small catalogue that accompanied the exhibition of the then thirty-three year old Marwan’s most recent paintings at the ­Rudolf Springer Gallery, aptly described this singular pictorial world with explicit knowledge of the proximity to Baselitz and Schönebeck as: ‘the new pathos, or pathetische Figuration [pathetic figurativism]’. This designation has persevered up to the present time. We have also come to understand, however, that this stance in art is tied to an international network of isolated but wilful artistic positions that – though they may appear upon first glance to have little in common – can be traced back to the figure paintings of Willem de Kooning or Francis Bacon, and even those of Jean Dubuffet or Asger Jorn. Yet, it is precisely when viewed within this context that Marwan’s authenticity – his utterly dissenting, exceedingly distinctive pictorial formulation – becomes particularly visible as a responsive counter-image, created in opposition to this kind of experience of the world. The same notion is also evident in that this cycle of figurative paintings spanning from the early 1960s to circa 1970 would prove artistically – on thematic, pictorial but also painterly levels – to be the preliminary, fruitful, intellectual conception of what was then the yet unfathomed evolvement of Marwan’s subsequent work, which finally attained such a high degree of international renown that his invaluable early pieces fell for a number of years well-nigh into obscurity.

This text is comprised of a new edition, revised and amended for the present catalogue, of the essay that originally appeared in 1989 under the same title in the catalogue for the Marwan – Frühe Bilder exhibition at the Springer Gallery in Berlin.
© 2013 Jörn Merkert