The Mosaic Rooms, a well-appointed privately funded institution, makes an excellent showcase for the work of the Syrian painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi, generally known just as Marwan. Based in Berlin since 1957, he settled in Germany by chance but is now well integrated into German society. In fact, fellow student Georg Baselitz is a more obvious influence on his artistic development than any Arab forebears. Marwan has children with his German wife, and became the first Arab member of the prestigious Akademie der Künste in 1994. That said, Marwan has kept in touch with his roots in Damascus, and his paintings might be seen as applying western modernist methods to Oriental concerns.
The exhibition is spread out over three rooms: the first contains seven large oil paintings of semi-abstracted heads, the subject on which Marwan has concentrated for the past forty years; the second is dedicated to the series of etchings 99 Heads; while the third gives fascinating background material through paintings from the 60s, recent works on paper, and sketchbooks. The large untitled examples shown are from 1977, 1987, 1992, 2001, 2019, 2010 and 2014. The earliest has a more clearly delineated head, and established more volume than the flattened planes of the later works – though, even they retain a ghostly echo of the cubist language which sought decidedly opposite ends. Longer-term, there is a move from the dark, dense, multi-layered build-up of paint towards a more open, fluid, brighter and thinner application, becoming gradually more lyrical as we move through to this century’s work.
The faces aren’t hard to perceive, given the brain’s pareidolian instincts, but they are abstracted enough to come in and out of focus, so that image and surface take turns at the front of our perceptions. This to and fro imparts a restless energy, which might suggest ‘inner faces depicting mental conditions always in flux’, in Jőrn Merkert’s words. This leads to the question: what conditions are being expressed here? You might say that Marwan uses the face merely as a ground for abstraction, were it not that the face is such a strong subject that it almost automatically picks up an existential aspect. The titles of Marwan’s shows have tended to play on this: ‘Topographies of the Soul’ preceded ‘Not Towards Home, But The Horizon’. Merkert is in no doubt: ‘Marwan is obsessed by faces because for him they are a means of expressing the dramatic depth of life.’
Such readings are in tune with the fragmentary presentation of figures, and the anonymity – and hence universal applicability – of the faces. While the show’s catalogue states that: ‘though the nature of his work calls attention to the surface, Marwan is in fact concerned in revealing what lies beneath’, I’m not persuaded that this is in the paintings themselves. One cannot read facial expressions or emotional states into these landscapes of the mind – if that is what they are – so any ascription of feeling must come from the viewer. I suspect the existential aspect is a projection built from statements about the work, and given additional weight by the fraught nature of German and Arab history over Marwan’s lifetime (he is 81) and the current trauma of Syria in particular.
The etching series 99 Heads, 1997-98, making its London debut here, pushes the heads further towards the unrecognisable than do any of the paintings. That’s largely a function of small scale and lack of colour to guide the eye, assisted by the insertion of horizontally aligned heads, and half-seen heads looking over tables, as well as the usual frontal portrait formats. The series references Sufism and the 99 names of God, a place always being left to represent the 100th name as a place of God’s light. Curiously, although there are 99 etchings arranged as a grid which covers a suitably sized room, some contain more than one face. Consequently there are in total more like 105 heads, which left me scratching mine with regard to the match with 99 names.
The third room has early – graphically and directly expressive – figures and marionettes, drawings, sketchbooks, large watercolours not dissimilar in effect to the most fluid recent oils, and my favourite part of the show: heads painted in rapid impasto directly onto the small boxes in which the paints came. The sculptural projection, everyday material and direct link to the studio process all feel appropriate. As in the etchings, the severely reduced scale works naturally with the lack of image resolution, leaving us with the spontaneous essence of Marwan’s project.