Any account of Arab or Syrian contemporary fine art would be incomplete without reference to Marwan and the pioneering role he played both in the Arab world and in his adopted homeland of Germany. It is rare to find artists with roots in the immigrant experience whose work receives proper recognition in their countries of residence, but since the 1960s Marwan has been one of the most famous representatives of New Figuration in Berlin, a period dominated by the Fluxus and Happening movements. In fact, New Figuration was first written about in the catalogue of Marwan’s debut solo exhibition in Germany in 1967.

Following his first retrospective in 1976 at the Große Orangerie Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin, Marwan was involved in a series of local and international exhibitions, collaborating with some of Germany’s most important 20th-century artists, and his star began to rise. In the Arab world, however, he was yet to receive the recognition he deserved, even in his country of birth. Despite solo exhibitions at the Arab Cultural Centre in Damascus in 1970 and the Baghdad Museum of Modern Art in 1980, and then participating in the first temporary group exhibition to be held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 1988,[1] it was only after four solo exhibitions of his work in Paris in 1993 that Marwan started to make his mark in the region. The most important of these was his show at the Institut du Monde Arabe and an etching exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale, which subsequently purchased all 54 works on show, the first time such an honour had been granted an Arab artist.

A year later, in 1994, some two decades after Marwan’s debut exhibition in Syria, his work returned to Damascus with an exhibition at the Atassi Gallery, which would go on to host three more exhibitions of his work in the years that followed. The period between the mid-1990s to the early 2000s saw a continuous series of events, exhibitions, and conferences associated with his work. These included the Khalid Shoman Foundation’s Darat Al Funun in Amman, the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah, and Birzeit University, to which Marwan gifted 74 of his etchingsas a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinian people and in recognition of their faith in the role of art. He also made his mark as a professor at the School of Fine Arts in West Berlin from 1977 to 2002, and as a founder of the Darat Al Funun Summer Academy, which was established in Amman in 1999 and which offered Arab artists the opportunity to train and work under his supervision. He worked at the academy until 2003, and it was a role of great importance to an entire generation of young artists from the Arab world and the West.

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Marwan's exhibition at Atassi Gallery, Damascus, 1994

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Head, oil on canvas, 195 x 130 cm, 2006


A Face: Mirror of the Self and the Other

Marwan’s focus on the face over the course of more than a half a century is of particular interest. His work in this area is both contemporary and imbued with historical references of great antiquity. The origins of image-making are depictions of the face: the need to recall, to make the absent present. Portraiture began as a funerary practice, then was overlaid by magical, metaphysical, and sacred connotations.[2] We can trace European schools through the development of this type of art from the Renaissance up to the present day. By contrast, the depiction of the face, and the self-portrait in particular, were never a theme of central importance to any of Marwan’s Arab contemporaries.[3] Today, however, we can detect his influence in the way a younger generation of contemporary Arab artists approach the subject.

Marwan himself rarely used the term ‘portrait’ to describe his art. He chose instead to use the word ‘faces’ for his earlier work, and ‘heads’ for work produced from the 1980s onwards. But what did the distinction between these two terms signify for him? Usually, we use the word portrait or self-portrait to describe an artist’s depiction of the face,[4] while the term head is used only when discussing the technical aspects of constructing a portrait. What meaning did Marwan himself give to these terms? What are the signifiers of this sometimes-concealed, sometimes-evident subject? What light can be shed on it by looking at the artist’s birthplace and his adopted home? What does his insistent repetition of the head signify? The recurrence of the head, which has been present throughout his career, is unique to Marwan, both as theme and image; for Marwan, this insistence stems from the cultural legacy of the Eastern Mediterranean, in which a reiterative approach to observation, contemplationand discovery of the new does not have negative connotations, but, rather, denotes a spiritual or mystical/Sufistic state. Is it possible to associate this repetition with Heraclitianism or the quest for the ‘impossible’ of an artist like Alberto Giacometti, who spoke repeatedly about the impossibility of ever fully depicting or comprehending the face? Should Marwan’s work be read as the product of a purely intellectual and representational process, or as being inspired and informed by an Eastern cultural tradition?[5]

There are many questions and issues related to Marwan’s work, and in order to understand them one must engage directly with its sensory and psychological detail, entering into the tangled byways of childhood, homeland, the hopes and desires of the passing days and the company he kept.

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Facial Landscape, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, 1972

‘Hibiscus Syriacus’ and the Alleyways of Damascus

Marwan once explained: “In my book The Journey, I mentioned that, when I was a child, my mother Samia asked me, ‘Marwan, would you mind painting a vase of flowers for Mrs. Fayza?’ So I painted a watercolour of the vase with its flowers, and then went out with my mother into the alleyways of Damascus to deliver the picture to Mrs. Fayza. It’s a vague memory, at once very close and far away, but it represents the first flowering on my endless journey with water and paint across the expanses of the blank page, which waits for the artist’s generous breath as ardently as a woman waits for her lover’s gift.”[6]

The traditional Syrian house in old Damascus where Marwan was born was not just the very embodiment of shelter and refuge for him, but it was also a manifestation of his dreams, a representation of a return to a land of childhood that remained immobile, suspended in memory. From the outside, the interior of the house is entirely curtained off and concealed. The contrast between the blank solidity of the outer walls which front the cramped alleys, and the wonders of the spacious inner courtyard with its little window to the sky, is striking.

When Marwan Kassab Bachi was born on 31 January 1934, the shape of the city was entirely different to how it is today. It was an enchanted world, full of magic. One had only to journey a little way outside the walls of the capital to find oneself in Ghouta, and from there the world expanded to take in the territories of the Qasimiya tribe and the open country, what he called “Bedouin purity” that represented another, fascinating world: magical, unique and entirely different from the noise of the city. These sensory details of place, which began with the house (its colours and light, its little window to the sky) and go on to encompass the warmth and bewitching stories told by the family, shaped his first impressions and opened the door to a world that would stay with Marwanforever: an engine which, whether hidden beneath the surface or out in the open, would drive his creativity in the years ahead.

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Undated page of Marwan's diary, 18 x 26 cm

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Marwan and Abdelrahman Munif

The Writer and the Artist: The Early Years

When the celebrated author Abdelrahman Munif was beginning to write the first comprehensive Arabic-language treatment of Marwan’s work,[7] he sent the artist a series of letters whose questions Marwan answered with a set of seven cassette recordings in which he spoke about his life and his approach to art. After listening to them, Munif sent him a letter in which he wrote the following (this, it should be noted, was before Marwan began writing his own memoirs):

“The sheer quantity of poetry in the recording is incredible; after I listened to it, I asked myself, ‘Does Marwan still have the desire, or the ability, to make poetry? Actual poetry, I mean? It’s worth thinking about, and you mustn’t simply dismiss the idea. You can just write a few words every day, then maybe you could polish it up somehow, and you might end up with something beautiful and special…”[8]

The friendship between them played an important role in Marwan’s life. It was thanks to their ongoing correspondence, which spanned the years between 1992 and 2004 (and which was published in 2012 as On the Literature of Friendship),[9] that he decided to begin writing his memoirs at the age of 65. They had first met in the mid-1950s in Damascus, at Marwan’s studio on Baghdad Street where a group of friends regularly met. Among these were Abdel Qadir Arnaout, Nasim Al Safarjalati, Qutayba Al Shihabi, Adnan Baghjati, and the three Ismail brothers –Naem, Adham and Sudqi. These were years of hope in the Arab world, of a belief in the possibility of unity, revival, progress and creativity. For these friends, their interest in art was matched by a desire to engage with the written word and politics – a faith that they could carry the hopes of the nation and had a part to play in a free and utopian world.

From an early age, Marwan was exhibiting with the pioneers of Syrian modern art, and his work received a considerable degree of critical attention and praise. His early work in Damascus displayed a knowledge and proficiency in his use of colour and line and in composition. In paintings produced between 1947 and 1957, we can detect the influence of both Impressionism and Expressionism, whereas in the two years prior to his departure, his work took on a distinctly Arab spirit, drawing on local cultural heritage and daily life.[10]

His participation in official exhibitions dates to 1952, with a show at the National Museum in Damascus, which is where, four years later in the spring of 1956, his work won him the first prize in the sculpture category. The Academy of Fine Arts was yet to be established, so he enrolled at the Faculty of Literatures at Damascus University, where he studied Arabic literature and developed his passion for poetry and prose.

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Marwan during his studies in Berlin in 1960

The Journey North: Berlin

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries from the Arab world who travelled to Rome or Paris to study art, Marwan was destined to end up in Berlin. His dream had been to study art in Paris, but the conflict over the Suez Canal meant that diplomatic ties with France had been severed.

His first stop was Munich in 1957, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, spending an entire semester under the tutelage of the artist Ernst Geitlinger[11] before following a friend to Berlin, where he joined the workshop of artist Hann Trier at the Academy of Fine Arts in what was soon to become West Berlin. Three years after his arrival in the city, a wall was built dividing Berlin into East and West. At that time, Germany was at the centre of the Cold War, and Berlin’s partition between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany only lowered the temperature. The city he came to was an island in ruins, still bearing the open wounds of the Second World War, and during this period Marwan’s isolation there was almost absolute, with all ties to his mother city of Damascus cut off. Furthermore, he settled there just as many of its original residents were leaving in search of a better life, but the city was attracting large numbers of artists and intellectuals from all over Germany and Europe in search of new approaches to living and liberty in the wake of the Second World War.

In a letter written to Naem Ismail, Marwan wrote about these early years in Berlin:

“I still haven’t felt any enthusiasm about anything I’ve done. Wouldn’t you agree that two or three years aren’t so long, that they’re barely enough for anyone to find what it is they truly want? Here there are no windows like the ones in our alley back home; no grass grows between the stones in the street. So should I really go on painting my dreams of Syria’s windows and shacks and flowers? I started out as though chancing my luck, like a man throwing himself into the sea.”[12]

But a man who sails the sea never fears drowning. So it was with Marwan, who burned all his works over the course of three days in Berlin following his graduation –the reason there are only a few rare pieces still extant from his university days. Marwan was acutely conscious of a void at the heart of his work: during this period, he was heavily influenced by trends then current in the Western politico-cultural context, such as German Art Informel, American Abstract Impressionism, French Lyrical Abstractionism and Tachisme. In West Germany and the capitalist West, abstraction was regarded as the language of freedom, whereas in East Germany and the Soviet Bloc, where social realism was the dominant idiom, it was dismissed as bourgeoise formalism. The paintings that Marwan produced under the influence of his tutor Hann Trier were attempts at a form of Tachisme, involving a spontaneous and dynamic application of line, the restrictions of the artist’s conscious or ‘rational’ direction set aside, followed by building up colour with the alternating application of warm and cool tones. The nihilism of the work – the void where its content should be – gave Marwan a sense of emptiness, of the aridity of experimentation and a disconnection from abstraction. It felt absurd to continue. It was here that he began to retrace his steps in search of himself and his dreams, to look more closely at those things that he had preserved inside him, deriving a new lexicon from his poetic and literary interests and, above all, his political beliefs. Marwan was highly political and dedicated much of his time to political activity. He had joined the Baath party in 1954 or 1955, and in Berlin he continued to work as a representative of the party in Germany, Austria and Switzerland up until 1962.

This sense of the shortcomings of abstract art was not confined to Marwan. Fellow students Eugen Schönebeck and Georg Baselitz had similar objections, drawing on literary and philosophical arguments to reject the dominant commercial mentality. In 1961, they published the first Pandämonisches Manifest, the title of which was the following lines by Antonin Artaud: “Les poètes levènt toujours les mains.” Artaud’s writings were then a kind of “gospel”[13] for a small group of young Germans. The following year, they published the second issue. Their thinking was freighted with an awareness of the burdens of German history, a youthful rejection of older generations, and the belief that German society was in urgent need of change. Of course, Marwan’s background and inspirations were quite different to those of his two German colleagues, but he shared their vision of a world in need of philosophy and poetry. Despite the existence of certain congruencies with their work, such as the pathos of figurative images (scenes of crucifixion, creatures in torment, heroic figures squatting alone in the canvas’s expanse), Marwan’s work was quite different to that of his colleagues and the prevailing fashions. His figures contained a double aspect of revelation and concealment and, with their more individualistic appearance, had an intimacy inspired by his dreams and private life.

The Academy of Fine Arts itself played an important role. The West Berlin students formed the Großgörschen 35 Group, named for the street address where they lived and which was also the first artist-run gallery to show his work in the city. A new movement was then giving impetus to painting, one that was first described in the catalogue to Marwan’s debut exhibition at the Springer gallery in 1967. The author of the essay, Eberhard Roters, wrote that Berlin was the centre of a new form of visual expression, and that since this movement was yet to be named he would give it one: New Pathos, or Pathetic Figuration.[14] This was of course the movement that in the 1960s would be referred to as Neo-Expressionism or New Figuration, with Marwan as one of its most important representatives and contributing to the foundation of a realist school of art amid the contemporary scene in Berlin.

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Badr Shaker Al Sayyab, oil on canvas 130 x 97cm, 1965

A Timeline of Marwan’s Work

Al Sayyab and Al Razzaz

Faces began to appear in Marwan’s work from 1964 on, as he focused on representations of two icons of Arab thought: Badr Shaker Al Sayyab (a contemporary poet) and Munif Al Razzaz (a political thinker), both of whom had suffered torture and exile for their progressive political beliefs. Marwan depicted both men in dozens of sketches and oil paintings in which their faces are loosely associated to fragments of their bodies: a hand, say, or a limb, or a block of flesh like a rib cage. In other paintings, he depicted a head on a wood or iron base like a chopping block, a reference to their tragic end. This was his way of engaging in political participation, his way of embodying his obsession with the Arab dream.

Immediately following the sequence on Al Sayyab and Al Razzaz, the artist’s face itself became the subject of his work: a move designed to avoid any possible misunderstanding on the part of a viewer who, searching for a particular identity in the faces shown, might forget the actual purpose of the work. His figures appeared isolated and alone within the expanse of the canvas, bodies that sometimes carried absurdist or sexual references without being reduced to the status of caricature.

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Fedae (Al Mutalathem), drypoint, aquatinte, 24 x 16 cm, 1969

Covered Faces: Towards an Arab Modernism

Marwan then produced dozens of works in which figures’ faces are covered by keffiyehs, veils and scarves (such as hijabs and khimars) or simply squares of cloth folded into a head-covering. These paintings, which combine the traditional and the contemporary, the revealed and the hidden, were produced at a critical juncture of modern Arab history, in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. There is a direct reference here to the concept of the fedaa’i, a person who sacrifices themselves for the cause: “They are not the cause, but an indivisible part of it.”[15] The entirely covered faces intentionally summon up the keffiyeh-masked faces of the Palestinian fedayeen. With their distinctive visual idiom, these works give the impression that they arerejecting contact with the outside world, their central figures seeming to be no longer present, anonymous. The very idea of individuality is lost.

In the late 1960s, the German press published a number of portraits of Palestinian children between 13 and 15 years of age. In 1970, in response to these images, Marwan produced The Three Children: Children of Palestine, which was followed by a series of drawings in which we can see the first signs of the symbol of the covering or veil. Marwan did not set out to directly express his support for – or to serve – the Palestinian cause. Rather, he was simply gesturing towards the existence of the ongoing tragedy:

“My internal monologue about these three children revolved around how I could make a work of art out of these children, without it being a heroic portrait, or a memorial: it couldn’t be a press portrait or a piece of patriotic art.”[16]

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

The Three Children (Children of Palestine), oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, 1970

From a deeper analysis of the associations between a large number of paintings (from this period and later), coupled with a review of works both by Marwan’s contemporaries in the Arab world and the young artists that followed them (especially at the turn of the century), it is evident in his face-covering work that Marwan was taking a step towards a contemporary Arab modernism. Regarding the subjectmatter from the early 1970s, there was considerable uncertainty in Germany over how to interpret his work. Jörn Merkert, former director of the Museum of Modern Art in Berlin, and an acknowledged expert in Marwan’s career from the 1970s onwards, has said:

“There was much incomprehension around Marwan’s work in Berlin and Germany. For example, the heads were not covered with what is commonly called a ‘hijab’ but with a woven fabric. We didn’t know what it meant, and never thought to connect these images with the intifada. There was a lot that was mysterious about it: even though I spoke extensively with Marwan on the topic, he was very reserved. It took me a long time until I stumbled across the term for these works, that today we have as our guide. We had no understanding that the word ‘ghiyab’ or absence meant the death or loss of somebody.”[17]

These early works associated with veiling were the catalyst for later ideas connected with masking, absence, and friendship. The concepts of presence and absence, so fundamental to Marwan’s work, were not intentionally sought for, so much as the spontaneous product of repeated reexamination of the same work through a variety of different perspectives.

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

In Bed 2, oil on canvas, 157 x 194 cm, 1973

From the Face to the Head

Through a chronological review of Marwan’s work during his figurative period we can see how the artist’s eye, like a director’s camera, slowly zooms in on the face of the body he is painting, until the face itself becomes the only subject of the canvas. Here, the face is not a self-portrait that derives from a narcissistic vision, but a metaphor. The face is the central concept: the catalyst for making the image through which the world can be understood. Marwan uses the self-portrait to reach the collective, as a way of linking the concerns of the self with those of the public sphere, as though his face represents the entire world.

Here we return to the two fundamental phases of his painting career: Face and Head. The first of these began with the ‘landscape faces’, the majority of them using the wider-than-tall dimensions found in landscape painting, in which the face-as-landscape was depicted with a palette of earth tones: the face is a planet; it has its own poetics. Slowly but surely, these faces began to lean to the right or left, freighted with a theatrical sensibility. Then Marwan began to focus more closely on the face until it came to occupy the entire canvas, the distance between artist and subject reducing until the subject itself was exhausted, at which point Marwan stopped drawing faces altogether and embarked on a phase of still-lives, and of the body-as-object, otherwise referred to as his marionette phase. He approached these themes in much the same way as in his figurative work and zoomed-in faces. After several years working on the ‘marionette’, depicting the object-body in a variety of different poses, he began to zoom in again until, in 1983, he was producing paintings in which the head filled the canvas. This marked the beginning of his head phase. The face now returned to the canvas but this time as a head: transformed into a thing, a representative of ‘everything’, universal and featureless. His figurative visual idiom became freer and started to dominate the canvas. He continued to produce these heads, the majority of them oriented vertically, with what felt like an inexhaustible appetite for variation until he passed away in 2016.

Marwan’s faces and heads are inextricably bound to his personal journey and function as a mirror to the time in which he lived.


The Face is Born While Another Face Dies

Marwan evinced a tireless interest in the twin themes of Face and Head. As he himself wrote on one of his Suite 99: “The face is born while another face dies.” When the artist draws one face over another, the new face is born and the covered face is ‘absented’: it dies.

This brief statement is a neat summary of his method, and a deeper reading of his work through his writings and an analysis of those works which he produced on paper reveals hidden aspects, personal transformations and stories. Viewing (or ‘reading’) these heads requires detailed contemplation of the paintings, occasionally referring to the photographic record Marwan kept of his work at different stages in order to engage with hidden aspects of the image, and also by reading his memoirs, now published as Days of Ash and Pomegranate: Memoirs and Journals,[18] and which charts the artist’s daily engagement with the face. Through these pages we are able to access the world of Marwan’s heads. They become a site of literary transformation and metaphor –despite the artist’s insistence on using a technical terminology, eschewing a literary, descriptive, writerly idiom at the expense of art. Although he refused to give titles to his works, preferring to retain a neutrality to avoid directing the audience towards a literary meaning that would make them forget the inherent purpose of the work, reading this text introduces us to an endless generative poetic source that lies behind the painted image. Metaphors abound in Marwan’s writing: the head is a bird, a prayer, a blue nest, a wall, a cloud, earth, a mask, winged, a Persian carpet:

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Suite 99, Sugar Aquatint on Chine collé, 16 x 22 cm, 1997-1998

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Head (Prayer "Salat"), oil on canvas, 162 x 114 cm, 2008



“The canvas unfurls, a Persian carpet, as the lewd body spreads out over the cloth and the forms pour from the windows of long-buried desire.

The forms walk over the linen, a Persian carpet bearing the propagations of the body with the long-buried desire and yearning for arrival.

My body is a prayer rug, a river flowing over the linen, to give the dreams of desire their space open the linen.

From my self and my body the colour flows, a prayer carpet, a mihrab, over the spaces of my childhood and its dreams.”[19]

It is no coincidence that Marwan’s faces directly (and invariably) confront and face the viewer, without duplicity or deception or romanticism of either gesture or expression. Every encounter with the other begins through the face: it is an exchange of gaze and dialogue. The face receives everything: it is identity; through it we are recognised, made distinct, named. It carries our primary distinguishing features and is the site through which a person is known, a personality revealed. But Marwan’s heads and faces are almost totally devoid of such features. Many of the works are like a lost encounter between canvas and viewer – or between artist and canvas.

First face then head take possession of Marwan’s canvas, which is transformed in turn into both a face and a veil. The vieweris invited to contemplate Levinas’s statement, that “any true encounter requires the eradication of the face’s features.”[20] Understood in its outward, evident aspect the meaning of the word ‘face’ stops at the threshold of vision, but multiplies and branches when referring to its inner, essential nature: it is invitation, encounter and identity; it is hospitality and welcome; it is the opening-out of the self.[21]

Confronted with Marwan’s works, we are invited to contemplate faces that are drawn and overlain by the layers of colour and time and expression that lie hidden behind a single head. The artist pushes us to look further, to go beyond the initial stage of observation or ‘illusion’. All the faces present in the work are interwoven: simultaneously hidden and revealed by small successive touches. The final face that the audience sees is the composite face of all mankind, in which colour, brushstrokes, and faces propagate and multiply, taking shape as this ‘we’ that confronts us, insisting on its presence.[22]

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Head ('Sisyphus' or Al Jhidar II), oil on canvas, 195 x 195 cm, 2008

The Dialectic of Medium and Imagination

The elements reviewed here showcase the intentionality of Marwan’s rigorous and ethical approach to his subject-matter and artistic journey, which starts with sketches on paper, watercolour and etching copper: much in the manner of the great masters, whose quest for the image led them through many stages and media. The human face remained Marwan’s constant obsession, and despite his experiments with form, again and again he came up against the obstacle of the artistic medium itself. During his painting phase, given the powerful association he made between time and the terrible reality of death, he wrestled constantly with the concept of the wall –for Marwan, a metaphor for the barrier between life and death. The idea of the wall began with a painting of a head. He would work on this head for a number of months, during which time it became clear to Marwan that he was working into and against the wall and its stone. Marwan: forever painting and repainting what he had painted, perpetually overlaying his canvas in an endless sequence of deaths and births. For Marwan, the heads were in a state of constant reiteration, locked in time’s turning wheel.

Marwan’s images were derived from the secret, intimate relationship he maintained with Syria, then enriched by his life in Germany, which added a profundity to his art and set in motion the dynamics of artistic dialogue. Two worlds fed his art. The first was his traditional Damascene house, through which he summoned up the city with its hidden doorways that so coloured his childhood and youth and shaped his relationship with himself and the world. This was a lost and wonderful world that haunted his memory, the cradle of his imagination that kept him constant company, a secret wellspring of his creativity. As for the so-called second world, Berlin, it was the mirror of his dream, a warm cocoon. It began with his arrival with the intention of living with and within a city entirely different from his birthplace, and also acted as a wellspring. Marwan and his art come from this hybrid culture of Berlin and Damascus, and his audience can observe the development of his central theme from the form of the face to the formless head that vanishes into its visual context, and see how his dialectic locates his work at the heart of Global Art World. His absolute faith in art, and the interplay of dream and memory, geography and place, form the essence of his artistic production. For Marwan, painting was his world, a way of being.



Dr Nagham Hodaifa

Paris, November 2022


NB: All images are produced courtesy of Marwan's estate.

MARWAN BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - Features - Atassi Foundation

Marwan, 2009. Photo by Nagham Hodaifa



[1] Marwan’s work was shown alongside that of Dia Al Azzawi (Iraq), Rafik El Kamel (Tunisia) and Mohammed Kasimi (Morocco), with the aim of giving the audience their first overview of Arab fine art. See: Four Arab Artists (Debut Exhibition): Al Azzawi, El Kamel, Kasimi, Marwan, catalogue, Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris, 1988).

[2] For more on the origins of portraiture, see: Hodaifa, Nagham, ’The Face and Body in Syrian Art’, in the exhibition catalogue Syria Into the Light, Atassi Foundation (2017), pp.117-8.

[3] Arab artists practiced portraiture, and their work fills the walls of palaces and bourgeoise homes in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq, though, unlike Marwan, it never became central to their practice. For more on this subject, see: Kassab-Hassan, Hanan, ’Portraiture in Arab Culture’, in The Image and its Visual Manifestations in Arab Culture, The Arab Cultural Centre (Beirut, 2004).

[4] The dictionary offers no exact equivalent of ‘portraiture’ in Arabic, in the sense of depicting (drawing or painting) a person’s face. Instead, Arabic uses the term ‘image’. We say, for instance, that the artist painted “a personal image” of somebody. The word ‘portrait’ is of Latin origin and is used with the specific sense of that type of artistic production that seeks to reproduce the form of the person or thing, and through which reproduction we are able to recognise it. Arabic art terminology has adopted a number of words derived from European languages, such as ‘auto-portrait’ for self-portraiture, while the term ‘image’ has beenreserved for photography, and ‘image-maker’, which literally could mean artist (the person who produces the image), means ‘photographer’. The Arabic word for ‘image’ deserves to be examined more closely.

[5] Hodaifa, Nagham, Marwan face à face, Peter Lang, coll. ‘Middle East, Social and Cultural Studies’, (Bern, 2018), pp. 15-6, sq.

[6] Marwan Kassab Bachi in private correspondence to Nagham Hodaifa, 18 August 2007.

[7] Munif, Abdelrahman, A Journey through Life and Art, Maktabat Al Assad (Berlin-Damascus, 1996).

[8] Munif, Abdelrahman and Marwan Kassab Bachi, On The Literature of Freindship, The Arab Foundation for Studies and Publishing & Dar Al Tanweer (Beirut, 2012), p. 48.

[9] Though Marwan had been living in Germany for 59 years, he did not write his memoirs in German or in the hybrid mix of languages (common practice among many immigrants), but in Arabic.

[10] The concept of authenticity was of central importance to many Arabs, connected to the desire to effect a revival of Arab art by drawing on their cultural heritage and local folkloric traditions, and using Arabic calligraphy and the idioms of Arabesque as visual components. This tendency took on a more radical form in Arab North Africa, especially the 65 Group, which numbered Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Chabâa and Mohamed Melehi among its members.

[11] Marwan first spoke about this brief period of his life in a letter to Hodaifa, dated 1 January 2014. His stay in Munich has been ignored by all previous discussions of the artist. See: Hodaifa, Nagham, Marwan face à face, op. cit., pp. 47-48.

[12] In an open letter from Naem Ismail to Marwan, published in the Maarifa magazine, Issue 134 (Syria, April 1973), pp. 102, 108 (

See also: Munif, Abdelrahman, A Journey through Life and Art, op. cit., p. 229.

[13] Merkert, Jörn, “Les premières œuvres inconnues de Marwan”, in Marwan, peintures, gravures, catalogue, Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris, 1993), p. 15.

[14] Roters, Eberhard, in Marwan, catalogue, Galerie Springer (Berlin, 1967). Roters was one of the most important critics and art historians of the period, occupying a number of senior positions including as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Berlin.

[15] Marwan Kassab Bachi in conversation with Nagham Hodaifa on 23 August 2009.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Statement by Merkert during the discussion of Hodaifa’s doctoral thesis at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. Merkert was a member of the invigilating panel. Hodaifa, Nagham, L’œuvre de Marwan de 1964 à nos jours: le visage en question et l’œuvre sur papier, Doctoral thesis in Art History and Archaeology supervised by Françoise Levaillant and Emmanuel Pernoud, University Paris 1, Pantheon-Sorbonne, (Paris, 2015).

[18] Kassab Bachi, Marwan, Days of Ash and Pomegranates: Memoirs and Journals, Dar Al Tanweer (Beirut, 2018).

[19] Ibid., p. 343.

[20] Levinas, Emmanuel and Phillipe Nemo, Éthique et Infini: Dialogues avec Phillipe Nemo, Fayard-Radio France (Paris, 1982), p. 89.

[21] Derrida, Jacques, Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas, Galilée (Paris, 1997), p. 49.

[22] Hodaifa, Nagham, Marwan face à face, op. cit., p. 304.