Marwan Kassab Bachi (Syrian, b. 1934)
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Marwan Kassab Bachi (Syrian, b. 1934)


Marwan Kassab Bachi (Syrian, b. 1934)
signed and dated 'Marwan 80' (upper left); signed, indistinctly inscribed and dated 'Marwan august 80' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
64 x 51 in. (162.5 x 129.5cm.)
Painted in August 1980
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Lot Essay

'Marwan belongs to a rare breed of artists who believe that art is not only beauty floating in the void but is an ethical deed that binds pleasure and joy to the truth'. (Abdulrrahman Munif on Marwan)

Most commonly known by his first name only, 'Marwan' or Marwan Kassab Bashi is one of the most prominent modernist artists of Syria. He has been living in Germany since the mid-fifties after studying at the school of Fine Arts in Berlin, where he later became a professor and was granted a permanent chair since the 1980s. Marwan was instrumental to the internationalizing of Arab contemporary art and many attribute it to him that Europe began to register the existence of a Syrian Contemporary Art Movement in a post-modern context.

During Marwan's prolonged stay in Germany he studied German Expressionism, which was to become the major influence on his paintings, along with his colleagues Eugen Schvnebeck and Georg Baselitz. However, during the 1960s he freed himself from the confines of the abstract expressionist movement.

His early paintings included landscapes and only a few depicted figures. However, these are no longer present in his mature work, where he aimed to capture his experience of nature as a whole within the images of human beings demonstrating their inner landscape.

Marwan developed a very strong individual style more concerned with colour and texture over representation, which served as a bridge between more traditional approaches and the developing form of abstract expressionism.

Marwan's paintings have several layers. The light that suffuses his art vibrates with superimposed pigments that recall the magic of our cities and of our tales - a curious and experimental outlook combined with nostalgia. It is an intimate experience, yet universal and mystic.
Painting each canvas is a long and arduous task and Marwan looks at every subject from a thousand mirrors, revealing more facets in every brush stroke. Once facing his white canvas, Marwan embarks on an inner journey that takes him inside his characters, it is a surprising ride into a kaleidoscope.

In his painting, Marwan restricts himself to a few simple, but essential, themes: the human being and the silent life of things - the head and the marionette. These few images are enough to provide an endless variety of emotions and an all-encompassing reflection of the human soul. Marwan's initial thought was to avoid the intimacy of a living model for his understanding of his artistic motives. His art is deeply rooted in the tradition of Sufi philosophy, the ancient Oriental wisdom of the heart, emphasizing the connection of heart, soul and spirit in the unity of being. In giving a shape to the secret fears and yearnings of the soul his paintings are also near to poetry. Being brought into Marwan's imaginary world can be the start of an enchantment, a spiritual adventure and a secret conversation with the inner self.

We see strong elements in some of his later series within some works of Chaim Soutine's, where he portrayed his own violent emotions using vivid colors and distorted imagery of his sitter.

The most striking element in the works by both artists is surely the unrestrained physical distortion of the figures. Both artists effectively use the dramatic contrast between the dark impenetrable background and the vivid colours of the clothing to direct attention to the painted face and body. Paintings of both artists are a record not only of appearance, but also of sensation.

The present work comes from this celebrated Marionette series, where subjects are unaccustomed to being observed. The doll has no soul and no depth, yet Marwan reflects his whole emotional experience, the emotions of the Arab street in the early 80s, the emotions of a long lived exile and a feeling that never left him since he wondered outside of his native country. One important point is the reason for his use of the Marionettes as subjects, which Prof. Dr. Rudieka explains in this great sentence, 'The West is sometimes misguided by rough stereotypes, whcih Marwan actually contradicts: his initial thought was to avoid the intimacy of living model for his paintings, hence the choice of a doll - an important step towards a deeper understanding of his artistic motives.'

This special doll is occupying centrally most of the canvas space, sitting motionless with total surrender and tiredness. While these small black eyes are staring happily to the viewer, Marwan is extracting the sight of her soul with the use of an extremely warm and rich palette. The doll has her makeup and bright clothes on, but her gaze is empty. All the games played with her have left marks on the outside of her body, captured in the rich texture of his work. The doll finally found refuge in Marwan's space, dropping all the heaviness off her shoulders with a slight smirk to her smile.

Marwan has had more than 25 solo exhibitions throughout his artistic career in prestigious galleries and institutions around the world including Sfeir Semler Gallery, Richard-Haizmann, Berlin, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad. He has been awarded numerous prizes and his works are featured in major public and private collections around the world, including Tate Modern, London and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

Marwan now lives and works in Berlin but regularly visits Damascus and the Middle East. From 1992 to 2000, he was a member of the jury of the Fred-Thieler Prize of the Berlinische Galerie. Some of his many talented students included Ayman Baalbaki, one of the leading Lebanese contemporary artists. The famous Syrian writer Adonis wrote seventy-five prose pieces in homage to marwan as well as his lifetime friend, the great Iraqi novelist Abdurrahman Munif, who wrote an Arabic monograph on the artist.

'...He has brought something Oriental into Western Art. He has mastered the language of European Art... and yet has steadfastly shown the wonders of the world from which he comes...' (Jörn Merket, director of the Berlin Museum of Modern Art on Marwan's birthplace).

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