Artists

Maryan's Triumph in Miami

Josh Campbell | January 14, 2019

2019 is already in full swing. Back in New York, all-star artist openings have already begun in Chelsea. If you’re like me, you’re excited that the art world has come back to life after its winter hiatus. However, the start of a new chapter typically comes with a reflection on the previous one. In my case, that would be Miami. The last big art-hoorah of the calendar year, Art Basel Miami Beach packs a sensory-overloading punch, throwing all kinds of art your way that typically requires a month or two to fully digest and process.

As I reflect on my time in Miami among all the various art fairs, museum and collection exhibitions, and street art, one presentation sticks out in my memory above the rest. In fact, since coming across this particular body of work, I haven’t truly been able to shake it. One reason for this, I suspect, is that I haven’t yet been able to determine why exactly I was, or am, so drawn to these works. All I know is that something within the images has irreversibly caught and held my attention, resonating a familiar yet strongly foreign chord within, leaving me utterly transfixed and wanting to know and see more.

I am referring to the beautifully bizarre and hauntingly-relevant, single-figure Personnage works of the late Polish-painter Maryan S. Maryan.

Installation view of Maryan: Personnage Works at Art Basel Miami Beach, Venus Over Manhattan, booth S5 at Art Basel Miami Beach. Image courtesy of the gallery.

For its inaugural exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach (December 6-9, 2018), New York-based gallery Venus Over Manhattan presented a solo presentation of important paintings by Maryan S. Maryan in the fair’s Survey Section (Booth S5). Showcasing the artist’s more boisterous and wildly gestural later years, the survey focused on Maryan’s Personnage paintings from 1967-1972 and included large-scale works on canvas along with an important suite of works on paper.

Captivating but deeply unsettling. Familiar yet still terrifying. Maryan’s Personnages offer lively compositions of the human condition with sinister, almost comedic, undertones. The grotesque, brightly colored creatures burst forth from the canvas, flailing their limbs, sticking out their tongues, aggressively asserting their presence. They are a harsh and unforgiving critique of mankind as seen by the artist.

In Two Personnages, c. 1968, two figures with heavy black outlines, one red-striped and the other black-striped, contort in conflict around one another against an illuminated, flat yellow-orange background. Their pink and red mouths are open and slobbering, and their banded white arms twist around each other as if fusing together. Intensely visceral and overtly sexual, it is unclear whether their awkward embrace is consensual or not, if the figures are elated or in torment, or perhaps all of these at once.

In Personnage: Standing on Table, c. 1972, a uniformed figure stands in profile atop a red table with his mouth painfully wide open. Spit, mucus and blood pour out the ears and mouth on the figure’s oversized head, dripping down his already messy white coat. His arms are locked to his side, unbent and extended downward. His position looks like that of a child throwing a tantrum, demanding attention from his parents. The smoky, matte-blue background heightens the anxiety felt by the singular character as it accentuates the harsh black outlines of the figure.

Two Personnages, 1968, Oil on canvas, 52 x 64 in. (132.1 x 162.6 cm) Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Maryan’s Personnages are a bundle of sensory-overloading imagery (how perfectly Miami) that require unpacking. So to better understand the origins and meanings behind these works, attention to the artist’s biography must be paid.

Maryan S. Maryan was born Pinchas Burstein in Poland in 1927. The second of three children in an Orthodox Jewish family, Maryan was victim to the nastiest of mankind’s depravity from early in life. In 1939, the German Nazis invaded Poland and arrested his family. From 1939 to 1945, Maryan and his family were interned at various ghettos, labor camps and concentration camps, ultimately ending up at Auschwitz. During this time, all of Maryan’s family members perished in the camps. He was the sole survivor.

In early 1945, the Nazis at Auschwitz began to get anxious at the impending arrival of the Allies. In a desperate act to conceal their crimes, they frantically attempted to kill off their remaining prisoners, of which Maryan was one. However, Maryan was shot in the leg and mistakenly left for dead on a pile of bodies in a lime-filled pit – a mass grave which the prisoners had been made to dig for themselves. Maryan only survived because he was mistaken for dead by fleeing Nazis. When the Russians finally liberated the prisoners, they discovered Maryan among the bodies. Seriously injured, his leg would later have to be amputated.

After the war, Maryan spent two years in refugee camps for displaced-persons in Germany before deciding to go to the newly formed state of Israel. In 1950, at age 23, he relocated to Paris. As part of France’s postwar policy of restitution to the Jews, Maryan was granted a stipend allowing him to study at the École des Beaux Arts and attend classes in painting given by Fernand Léger. Once in Paris, Maryan abandoned the name listed on his official papers and petitioned the French court for a new one. He chose the common Polish man’s name Maryan, and by 1956, Pinchas Burstein succeeded in reinventing himself.

Considering the horrifying road that was Maryan’s early life, it easy to see why the artist’s truth reads as it does. However, to assume that the meaning and purpose derived from Maryan’s “Personnages” is simply to highlight man’s wicked tendencies is to miss the power held within these works altogether. By enduring what he did, knowing both the horrors of living through the Holocaust and the guilt that came with being a survivor, Maryan experienced emotion in the rawest, most extreme form. This understanding equipped the artist with the vision and sight to represent the human condition at its most distilled form.

Personnage: Standing on Table, 1972, Gouache on paper mounted to canvas, 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm) Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Despite being painted more than forty years ago, the bold outlines, vibrant colors and wildly animated caricatures read as freshly contemporary. Scenes of anger, lust, love, joy, greed and self-indulgence persist throughout the compositions. Though the narratives remain unclear, the riveting actions taken are readily identifiable. Maryan’s Personnages, seemingly human but not entirely, are the artist’s personification of the human capacities that have made the best and worst of our history possible. It is his unyielding grasp on these concepts that give his work its universality and timeliness.

That is the magic of Maryan’s Personnages. Their depiction of creatures caught in the comedy of the human condition offers a perspective on humanity that is familiar but not often dwelled upon – that all men are beasts. A simple but powerful statement, Maryan’s works act as a necessary mirror revealing our most extreme selves. Necessary in the sense that it is good, if not pertinent, to look in the mirror and remind yourself of the potential for cruelty that lurks within all people. If you don’t, you forget that it is exists – a dangerous phenomenon that can lead to ignorant endorsements of otherwise cruel and inhumane policies, thereby dooming us to repeat the mistakes of our past.

The magic of good art, or I should say the power of good art, is that it has the capacity to reach out and speak to each of us individually, as well as all of us collectively. And the magic of great art…well, it has the power to speak with an astounding immediacy, seducing audiences across time and culture. Needless to say, Maryan’s Personnages fall within the camp of great art. Among the most clearly misanthropic works to come out of the twentieth century, the Personnages are an unrelenting, and extraordinarily timely reminder of how low humanity can dip.


Josh Campbell works as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for eazel. He received Bachelor’s Degrees in Studio Art, Art History and Business Administration from Trinity University, and his Masters in Art in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York City. Since moving to Manhattan, New York from San Antonio, Texas in 2015, Josh has immersed himself in the markets and enterprises that comprise the city’s unique art landscape.

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