Marwan (Marwan Kassab Bachi)

Sisyphus, The Wall


Not on display

Marwan (Marwan Kassab Bachi) 1934–2016
Original title
Sisyphus, Al-Jidar
Oil paint on canvas
Frame: 1984 × 1989 × 49 mm
support: 1947 × 1952 mm
Presented by Marwan T. Assaf 2010


Sisyphus, The Wall (Sisyphus, Al-Jidar) is a large square painting of a figure’s head, the features of which are difficult to read. It is just possible to make out the darker outline of the eyes, nose and eyebrows, while a lighter area at the bottom of the painting suggests the sitter’s neck and shoulders. The image is made up of large, rough blocks of coloured paint, applied one upon the other to form the basic shape of the head. The background of the painting is very dark, almost black, allowing the more coloured face to stand out. The work has many layers of paint that have been built up slowly over a number of years; the artist has stated that there are as many as thirty paintings underneath its finished surface (in conversation with Tate curator Kyla McDonald, September 2010). The title suggests the painting to be a portrait of Sisyphus, the character from ancient Greek mythology who, according to Homer’s Odyssey (8th Century BC), was a king punished by the gods who sentenced him to repeatedly roll a huge boulder up a hill. His name is thus given in reference to any monumental and endless task. The title also acts as a metaphor for Marwan’s particular painting technique, which is based on repetition and labour.

Sisyphus, The Wall is typical of Marwan’s work; the artist has been preoccupied with depicting the human head for over thirty years and continually paints different versions of this subject. His early works were aligned with figurative post-war German artists such as Georg Baselitz (born 1938), whose work the Syrian-born Marwan encountered after settling in Berlin in 1957. These influences remain evident in his later practice and in this painting, where the figure is treated with a level of brutality that almost completely obscures the features of the face. As described in the catalogue for the 11th Istanbul Biennial, in which Marwan was included, ‘existentialist undertones find pictorial expression in brutally disfigured human bodies and the obsessive repetition of the human head motif, defying easy identification with “humanism”. Working slowly and meticulously, adding layer upon layer, Marwan creates figures that unfold onto the surface, tracing people’s paranoia and alienation.’ (Ulrike Gerhardt, ‘What, How and for Whom/WHW’, in Baliç 2009, p.176.)

The second part of the title of this work, ‘Al Jidar’, is Arabic for ‘The Wall’. This can be read as an allusion to the pictorial style of the artist, who has created the image from ‘bricks’ of coloured paint; seen from another perspective, the head can be seen as being rendered as solid as a wall or edifice. This style exemplifies many of Marwan’s later works – he has made a series of both paintings and watercolours that depict portrait heads using similarly rough blocks of paint in different colours. Marwan’s earlier works, though still depicting the human head, were more directly representational, and often more linear, such that the features of the subject can be clearly seen. His portraits have become gradually looser in style, with the features becoming slowly more and more obliterated.

Further reading
Ilkay Baliç (ed.), 11th Istanbul Biennial: What Keeps Mankind Alive?, exhibition catalogue, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), Istanbul 2009.

Kyla McDonald
September 2010

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