Lot 18
  • 18


60,000 - 80,000 GBP
75,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Marwan
  • Untitled 
  • signed and dated Marwan '73
  • oil on canvas


Sale: Grisebach GmbH, Berlin, May 28, 2011, lot 00530 
Private Collection
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2013

Catalogue Note

In many ways Marwan was esteemed as one of the Arab world’s most influential artists. He created works which embodied Arab and European stylistic influences uniting these two different cultures while simultaneously challenging his audience in a conscious abandonment of formal figuration with a unique ability to go beyond the surface of the canvas.


Marwan was born in Da­mascus on January 31st, 1934. Af­ter studying Arabic literature at the University of Damascus, he planned a move to Paris, a creative refuge for young Syrian and Leba­nese artists at the time, but in 1957 he instead immigrated to Berlin. Having spent almost five decades in Berlin, the Syrian artist’s oeuvre had been influenced by Post-war German art whilst still preserving the cultural legacy and traditions of the Arab world. As such the artist bridged the gap between two adverse notions – European Modernity and the ancient Oriental.

Marwan confined his painting to a few fundamental themes: the human figure and the silent life of things reflected in series such as the Head and the Marionettes. Although naive these images are enough to satisfy their audience through their diverse emotion and all-encompassing the imprecise of the human soul. On numerous occasions the artist’s work has been compared to that of George Baselitz’s, whom he befriended during his student years in Berlin. In the 1960s the two young artists became leaders in their exploration of the “New Figuration”, which actively dismissed the stylistic trends of Art Informel and Tachism. However, Baselitz and Marwan differ in their method of work; whilst Baselitz works impulsively, Marwan worked slowly, delicately applying layer upon layer in order to allow the work to unfold itself. His work aims to uncover an ultimate sense of truth which is instilled in the deep reflection and spirituality of his painting.

Much of the imagery in his early work featured melancholic figures with distorted dimensions, incarcerated politicians and mounds of fleshy meat. From this the artist continued to develop his style, stressing the importance of colour and texture over the legibility of form. This began with a series of paintings titled ‘Khaddouj’ which recalled his childhood memories of his maid of the same name and transformed her into a visual metaphor that would dominate his work. Beyond this subject, the artist further explored still life’s, his ‘Dolls’ series and his most renowned head portraits.

Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Marwan’s work is the human head, which through countless depictions becomes a central and recurrent theme for him over a period of thirty years of his practice. There are also portraits, but only a few. Most of his heads are void of their representational function; instead they are universal portraits of humanity that could perhaps be seen as a pursuit to confront the human conscience through painting.  Repetition features further in his application of painting, as a three-dimensional form is created through layered planes of heavy brush strokes bordering on abstraction. With this technique “a single canvas would carry many faces on top of each other and one painting would often need several years of work before it was considered finished by the artist.” (Jimmy Dabbagh in: Marwan Kassab – Bachim an artist who challenged the landscape of portraiture, The Arab Weekly, 2016)

Because of the repetitious and self-effacing aspect of these compositions, they can also be interpreted as explorations of Sufist principles. Marwan maintained close ties to the Arab modernist movements in art and literature for the whole of his career, and contributed drawings and sketches to friend’s publications, such as the poet Adonis and the novelist Abdul Rahman Munif, among others. “Marwan belongs to a rare breed of artists who firmly believe that art is not just a form floating in empty space, but a moral act which links entertainment and joy with a search for the truth” (Ismail Al Rifa’I, Marwan Kassab-Bachi: Journey in the Topography of the Soul, Jan 2015). This reinforces the principles of what Marwan worked towards, and how he works. Further, it asserts the belief that Marwan’s work is among the top contenders for contemporary art, and is testified by the most prestigious museums and galleries across the globe.

Sotheby’s is privileged to offer one of Marwan’s most accomplished figurative works from the height of his career. This attractive and rare composition is one of the artist’s earliest works, dated 1973, and the year that Marwan received a scholarship for the Cité des Arts in Paris, an achievement that he had dreamed of since his youth. The portrait depicts a seated figure facing the viewer in an unsparing, challenging directness. Here his work sees a return to colour as his paintings embrace a new cheerful musicality, devoid of harsh contours, arriving at a dreamlike, somewhat blurry impression punctuated by his application of pure colour. Works from this period remain unique and undiscovered by the public domain, partly due to their unlikely style which upon first glance appears different from his more recognised oeuvre. These works are characterised by his attention to colour; a type of innocence and simplicity that will be lost in his later, more confrontational ‘face’ pieces. His palette adopts delicate tones of ochre, brown, off-white, contrasted against hues of orange, heavy reds and dark greens. A contemplative stillness defines these compositions stylistically, but also theoretically as one derives a raw notion of self-exploration and expression. A true collector’s item, this work and others of this period are arguably the forerunners of what was the then undetermined evolution of his subsequent career-defining abstraction.

Having exhibited and been included in numerous international shows at various prestigious institutions throughout his career, Marwan, who sadly passed away in 2016, will be represented again with his extraordinary talent and works at the 57th Venice Biennale this year.


“…the human face…

is a kind of rug before its shape is fixed –

in Marwan’s work –

in a between that is not

a mystical point between us

but a depth between the deathmask of the covering

Persona and peeled skin.”


Marwan cited Damascus-Berlin-Damascus, Khan-Assad-Badsha Damascus, April 2005, p.31