Marwan (Marwan Kassab Bachi)

Bader Chaker al Sayyab


Not on display

Marwan (Marwan Kassab Bachi) 1934–2016
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1300 × 975 mm
frame: 1335 × 1009 × 50 mm
Partial gift from the artist and partial purchase with funds provided by the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2016


Bader Chaker al Sayyab is an oil painting made by Marwan (Marwan Kassab Bachi) in 1965 while the artist was living and working in Berlin. It shows the head of the Iraqi poet Bader Chaker al Sayyab (1926–1964) against a deep blue background. The head of Sayyab sits on top of an ochre plinth, the rectangular form of which may evoke a headstone. In the upper part of the canvas, above and surrounding the head, is an abstract shape in tones of pink, lilac and yellow, from which a fleshy-looking pink limb extends to the top of the canvas in front of a yellow rectangle. The configuration of elements, with the poet’s head in the centre, resembles a guillotine. The pink shape, with its gestural brushstrokes, is also suggestive of a mass of flesh or meat, dramatically amplifying a sense of death, mortality and decay. Towards the bottom of the painting, at the foot of the headstone shape, a hand offers a flower to the dead poet. It is unclear if the hand is that of the artist or of somebody else, but the detail undoubtedly symbolises an homage to Sayyab. It can also be seen as a pictorial strategy to provide further depth to the picture plane and, with its realistic depiction, to extend the composition into the physical space of the viewer.

Although Marwan does not himself describe the work as a portrait of Sayyab, the features of the poet are clearly discernible (Marwan in conversation with Tate curators Vassilis Oikonomopoulos and Morad Montazami, 16 January 2015). Indeed, they strongly resemble photographs reproduced in the Arab press at the time of the poet’s death in 1964. However, the composition is ambiguous and uncanny. At first reminiscent of a classical monumental bust, the scene as a whole may allude to martyrdom and to the personal sufferings that the poet endured because of his political views and writings (Sayyab had been a member of the Iraqi Communist Party early in his career). The head of the poet is depicted in warm colours and with a sense of vitality. His facial expression is stark, yet his strong features and direct stare seem to emanate presence. To the right side of Sayyab’s head, the suggestion of a third eye is painted in an area of colder blue tones which separate it from the face like a shadow. This duality may suggest the life and death of the poet and his posthumous existence through his literary legacy. Born in Jekor, Iraq, in 1926, in the 1940s Sayyab launched a modernist free verse movement which revolted against classical literary styles. He wrote political and social poetry along with many personal works. His poetry is regarded as one of the most significant contributions in contemporary Arab literature. Sayyab suffered from a degenerative nervous disorder early in his life and died in his thirties.

Born in Damascus, Marwan moved to West Berlin in 1957 to study painting under the tutelage of Hann Trier, one of the founding members of the ‘Donnerstag-Gesellschaft’ (‘Thursday Group’). During his studies Marwan encountered the painting styles of German informel, American abstract expressionism, tachisme and gestural painting, which had become an international language at the time. He became an active member of the Berlin art scene and a close friend of artists such as Georg Baselitz and Eugen Schönebeck. Focusing almost exclusively on the human figure, and the head in particular, Marwan developed an artistic language based on the repetition of these themes. However, the strong psychological and historical layers in compositions such as Bader Chaker al Sayyab point towards a rich diversity in his work through the transformation of the human figure.

Marwan’s artistic output in the early 1960s can be seen in the context of political situation in Berlin, a city that was divided by the Berlin Wall. This led to a creative emphasis in Berlin that was characterised by melancholy and anguish, by dystopian ideas and by the decay of civilisation – themes that are found in Marwan’s works of the period. The subject of this particular painting creates a connection between Europe, where Marwan was living, and his native Arab world, highlighting the commonalities shared by the two regions at the time. Marwan’s personal experiences, alongside historical developments in the Arab world, had a strong influence on his practice. Bader Chaker al Sayyab can be seen as a testament to Marwan’s continuing interest in the key cultural and political moments that defined the Arab world at the time. It is characteristic of his practice during the 1960s and the early 1970s, but differs significantly from his later work, which, while still rooted in the human figure, became more abstract and gestural (see, for example, Sisyphus, The Wall 2008–9, Tate T13272).

Further reading
Marwan: Early Works 1962–1972, exhibition catalogue, Beirut Exhibition Centre, Beirut 2013.
Marwan: Topographies of the Soul, exhibition catalogue, Barjeel Art Foundation, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah 2014.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
June 2015

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Display caption

Marwan left Syria in 1957 to study painting in Berlin shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected and the city divided. In Germany he encountered a range of approaches to abstract painting characterised by melancholy and anguish. Marwan’s paintings from this period generally feature human figures on stark, single-colour backgrounds, which highlight the intensity of his characters. This painting depicts the head of Bader Chaker al Sayyab (1926–64), a politically engaged Iraqi poet who died tragically young, but whose contribution to Arabic literature is still widely acknowledged.

Gallery label, October 2016

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