Marwan and the Marionette
After a certain period of time one knows what can be expected from an artist. The absolutely new would be bad news, an accident, if not worse. Anyone visiting an exhibition by Marwan should by now expect to see further variations on the same theme: heads, or better faces – physiognomies indissolubly woven into the pictorial surface that seem to look at the viewer from an indeterminate depth. For almost forty years Marwan has been developing this motif within a vast range of moods and references: from the broadly painted facial landscapes of his early work to the steeply towering, ecstatically vibrating monumental heads to double-head configurations, in which a cool, greenish chord has recently begun to contrast and complement the predominantly warm, magenta-brown bias of his colouration. In the course of this development, the distanced fixation of the viewer by a pair of eyes from the far upper back has given way to a single, impenetrably veiled gaze.
This main theme still prevails, and with it the pervasive mood of sensual luxuriance overcast by a shade of melancholy. But since 2006 it has been accompanied by a surprising reprise: Marwan is again painting marionettes. After almost a quarter of a century he has returned to a motif that played a clarifying, even catalysing role in his work between 1978 and 1983. Marwan tried to explain his preference for the marionette to me when I wrote my first text about him in 1984: working with the puppet he didn’t feel the inhibition that a female model would induce. At the time I attributed this diffidence about the pictorial use of a woman to Marwan’s roots in the Arabian culture, which still hasn’t completely lost the awareness of the power of the image and a sense of propriety in human interaction. Today I would interpret this attitude less culture-specifically: Francis Bacon used photographs for his portrait studies for the same reason; the models for Cézanne’s bathers can be found in the Louvre’s collections of antiquities and seventeenth-century sculpture; not to mention the fact that the poses in the great figure paintings of the European tradition are largely drawn from ancient Greek and Roman works of art, and not from the street. Relating to the human body indirectly appears to be more the rule than the exception in figurative painting. However, Marwan’s recent return to the motif of the marionette seems to be differently motivated. The explanation that the puppet serves as a surrogate for the living model obviously doesn’t suffice. Perhaps there is a deeper relationship, a kind of latent correspondence between Marwan’s autonomous pictorial conception of the figure and the artefact of the marionette?
Aesthetic experience comes into conflict here with a prejudice that has become prevalent in Western culture. For the Greek philosophers and the Western moralists the marionette was occasionally a symbol of the human being as a creature hanging from invisible strings, literally de-pendent, directed by an external volition or the force of destiny, whether originating in the Lord on high or the basest of drives and instincts. But only in the political and social rhetoric of the modern era did this image become a cliché, an expression of open contempt and secret admiration in equal parts. While attacking the ‘marionettes’ of capital or other anonymous powers has belonged to the standard repertoire of polemic denunciation since the nineteenth century, in the criminal milieu, in top management and among party organisations the term ‘string puller’ or ‘puppet master’ is a title of honour. In both cases the comparison with the puppet theatre alleges the bogus character of apparently free, self-reliant actions. In a similar way the term ‘masquerade’ is understood as deception, ‘play-acting’ as mere simulation and ‘clowning around’ as a synonym for fruitless excitement. In short, in the staid bourgeois world the true, serious business of life appears to be prejudiced against any kind of artful play and is suspiciously on its guard against the ‘theatre’, not to mention the ‘circus’.
It is quite a different matter with only slightly older voices of the aesthetic enlightenment. In the eighteenth century, alongside the landscape garden, the puppet theatre was a preferred divertissement among art-minded circles in Italy, France, England and the German states. Joseph Haydn composed a series of light puppet operas for Prince Esterházy’s famous theatre in Eisenstadt; Goethe elevated a Christmas puppet show to the formative art experience of his Wilhelm Meister; and almost at the end of this period of spirited appreciation of the marionette, Kleist threw down the gauntlet to the ill-humoured bourgeois, claiming that the marionette’s performance was more ‘natural’ in its artificiality than that of the actor, whose expressive gesticulation was affected by reflection – more natural, indeed, than any self-aware rational behaviour.
It is worth examining this proposition of the essay On the Marionette Theatre (1810) more closely. For the ‘naturalness’ referred to by Kleist is one that has been historically prompted. Along with the principle of human autonomy, the Age of Enlightenment also formulated an uneasiness about the merely contrived, intentional, fabricated; that is, the woefully artificial. Art can only be called beautiful, Kant declared, when we are aware that it is art and yet looks natural – that is, when it appears unintentional. In this sense the marionette moves with astonishing ease, neither inhibited nor strained by the intentions and considerations of self-awareness: the axis of its performance, as Kleist observed, is always the vertical, even when it is moved horizontally. The difference between dangling limbs and an articulated pendular movement derives solely from the distribution of gravity: from whether the puppet hangs from a single hook or whether several strings allow its body’s secondary centres of gravity to be activated along with the primary one in the pelvis. Despite this simple, rectilinear motor activity, the movement of the marionette is by no means naturalistic in a mechanical sense, as Kleist is oddly tempted to assume despite his recognition that the figure and performance of a marionette is ‘anti-gravitational’ in both its physical proportions and its movements. Quite differently from a clockwork mechanism or an automaton, the marionette’s appearance is remarkably easy-going, alternating between loosely swinging and angular movements, while the outsized head, all too lifelike, always appears to wobble a little above the comparatively scant substructure.
In human terms, this thoroughly realistic reversal of weight ratios is an important external reason why the marionette motif – in its idle condition too – is attractive to Marwan, the painter of large heads and facial landscapes. It ‘suits’ him, as it were. With widely open eyes unequivocally subject to the law of gravity, the marionette almost always seems to get it just right. Instead of more or less successfully miming the expression of dejection, sulkiness, innocence, abandonment or melancholy, as an actor would, it is dejected, crumpled, taken by surprise, crestfallen, prostrate or quietly self-absorbed without acting at all. But above all it has the permanent, commanding, enigmatic, unwavering, unblinking, unruffled gaze that only the true diva or the good little girl are able to summon up. Despite all evidence, neither shyness nor ardency, neither lasciviousness nor gloom appear to be foreign to the emotionless marionette.
To be sure, the paradox of an inanimate figure impersonating real states of life is contrived, but it has never really confused anyone. Kurt Tucholsky once wrote that there had to be a Punch in every great actor, otherwise nothing would come of him, hopefully meaning this as seriously as George Bernard Shaw’s siding with the Punch-and-Judy show, Pulcinella, Guignol and their like. That most adept of twentieth-century dramatists preferred the wooden actors to those of flesh and blood, believing that puppets, ‘though stiff and continually glaring at you with the same overcharged expression, yet move you as only the most experienced living actors can’ and that the true dramatic interest lies not in what the actors portray but in the emotions they awaken in us. This means, to exaggerate somewhat, that the real drama doesn’t take place, like so-called real life, among the acting characters but between the dramatic setting and the audience. In this relationship, sentiments and emotions come into play which marionettes are able to evoke in an almost pure state, at any rate without the illusion of being true to life.
The analogy with Marwan’s paintings is obvious, but there remains a final, serious objection. The impression of aliveness that the marionette is able to create is mainly based on the movements of a de facto lifeless body; that is, on a contrast in performance of which painting doesn’t seem to be directly capable. But who or what moves the puppet? Who acts? This is the crucial point, at which it is necessary to hold one’s nerve in the face of the many false insinuations and half-truths of hasty reasoning and political rhetoric which all stem from the concealment of the movement’s cause. For the marionette is not, strictly speaking, moved by a superior subject: the metaphor of the god or rogue who pulls the strings is skew, because the bearing of the figure isn’t directly dependent on the will of the player. The marionette is much more a creature of the human hand.
Nothing shows this intimate connection better than the fact that the hand itself – inserted into a sock, or even naked, as a shadow on a wall – can certainly compete with its owner. The idea of the hand as the mere executive organ of some kind of commanding authority called intellect or intelligence is one of the lamentable deficits of our civilisation. Once trained and given practice, the hand can do much more than we can imagine. Paul Valéry even claimed that there must be an important interrelationship between ‘our thought and that marvellous complex of properties secured for us by our hands’. The hand is not only the shamelessly exploited slave of the craftsman or the often pampered mistress of the artist: it is itself a secret artist, who helps us tie our shoes in the morning without a thought; the somnambulistic accomplice of the surgeon within the body, where the overview falters; it is the eye of the sightless and the mouth of the voiceless; and – not least, but perhaps above all – it is an irresistible erotic seductress. We don’t need, as Kleist opined, to eat once again of the Tree of Knowledge in order to fall back into a state of innocence. The Paradise of natural ease, even if usually unnoticed and in itself intangible, is always within reach: in the masterful play of the hand.
The return of the marionette in Marwan’s painting thus reveals a side of his art that also allows a better understanding of the main theme of the heads. Marwan doesn’t represent anything figuratively, if re-presentation means to repeat something already apparent. Even in the early work of the 1960s, which was exhibited in the Berlinische Galerie in 2006, it is clear that his art has a quality of performance that doesn’t shy away from theatricality. In his mature work this trait has been refined into a kind of pictorial ‘hand-writing’, a free emotional calligraphy that literally performs the figurative motif; evokes it through the rhythmic, graphically controlled chromatic structure, without relying on a preconceived reality. Marwan’s painting is neither based on a given sensation nor set against the background of a particular meaning. It also doesn’t simply amount to the colouristic and formal texture on the canvas, but finds its visual, emotional and associative concretion in the act of being perceived by the viewer. The opulence of the painted surface, the bursting of delectable, synaesthetically captivating essences in these pictorial tapestries may recall André Masson’s assertion that splendour in Western painting has always come from the Orient. But at least as significant, if not more so, is Marwan’s uncompromising acceptance of a maxim of European modernism which Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet of exalted emotions, associated with the figure of the marionette in his Duino Elegies: ‘I will not have these half-filled masks! No, no / rather the doll. That’ s full. I’ll force myself / to bear the husk, the wire, and even that face / of sheer appearance. Here! I am in my seat’ (the Fourth Elegy, trans. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender).
It is precisely this provocative assertion that links Marwan’s pictorial conception to the semblance of the marionette: the expression of ‘sheer appearance’, the enigmatic depth of the surface. Faced with these paintings, enduring their luxuriance of colour and the speckled dance of their agitated brushwork, resisting the temptation to probe headily into them, one cannot eventually fail to notice the shadow, the quiet, uncomplaining vestige of melancholy which actually rounds off and deepens the pleasure.
Translated by Michael Turnbull from Sinn und Form, Sept./Oct. 2007