‘PERSONNAGE IN a Box’ takes an oxymoronic look at some of the monsters Maryan encountered during the Holocaust. (photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
‘PERSONNAGE IN a Box’ takes an oxymoronic look at some of the monsters Maryan encountered during the Holocaust. (photo credit: ELAD SARIG)
New Tel Aviv art exhibit shows work of Holocaust survivor artist

If you like your art on the more feral, stirring, emotive side of the sensory tracks, you’d do well to pop along to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to catch an eyeful and heartful of “My Name Is Maryan.”

The exhibition hits you right between the eyes and the ribs, from the outset. As you enter the first display area – the show occupies several halls on a couple of floors – you encounter a plethora of color and form, and an almost intoxicating sense of physical, aesthetic and emotional dynamism.

Not a bad intro to the work of Holocaust survivor artist Maryan S. Maryan, who started life in Poland in 1927 with the name of Pinkas Bursztyn and died 50 years later in his apartment in New York’s storied Chelsea Hotel.

The life and work of Maryan S. Maryan

Maryan (Bursztyn changed his name shortly after he settled in Paris in the early 1950s) was a colorful, complex character, probably as polychromic and multi-stratified as some of the works in the Tel Aviv retrospective. Perusing his biographical details, one learns that he experienced far more than his fair share of drama and tragedy.

Although the artist spent a year in the Rzeszow Ghetto and around two years in Auschwitz, somehow surviving being shot several times and eventually having a leg amputated, co-curator Noa Rosenberg parries any suggestion that those horrific events defined Maryan’s oeuvre per se. “[Israel Prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor] Aharon Appelfeld said he wasn’t a Holocaust artist any more than Van Gogh was a sunflower painter,” she says. “He was right.”

 THE ARTIST in his Paris studio in the mid-1950s.  (credit: J.P. Dutour) THE ARTIST in his Paris studio in the mid-1950s. (credit: J.P. Dutour)

Rosenberg cautions against neat pigeonholing. “Particularly in Israel, when you use the term ‘Holocaust artist,’ that makes it all seem shallow. That infers that the artist only relates to the Jewish people, that [the art] is limited to very personal things, and the artist only portrays the things that happened to him. Good art is the result of the ability to take a step back [from one’s personal experiences].”

“Particularly in Israel, when you use the term ‘Holocaust artist,’ that makes it all seem shallow. That infers that the artist only relates to the Jewish people, that [the art] is limited to very personal things, and the artist only portrays the things that happened to him. Good art is the result of the ability to take a step back [from one’s personal experiences].”

Noa Rozenberg

Point taken. Admittedly, that may be simply a matter of semantics, but after taking a good look at the works at the museum, there is no denying the fact that being incarcerated by the Nazis, subjected to unthinkable cruelty and having his entire family murdered informed who he was a person and as an artist. 

To get that, you don’t really need to go any further than to watch the Ecce homo movie he made in 1975 together with filmmaker Kenny Schneider, which features in “My Name Is Maryan.” The monochrome project was filmed in Maryan’s Chelsea Hotel abode and has all the hallmarks of a patently homemade undertaking. If there was any doubt regarding Maryan’s weighty emotional baggage, and from whence it hails, that is spelled out, crudely and naively. The artist conveys his thoughts and feelings about the world and how he came to be where he was at that stage.

The name of the celluloid creation gives the game away, referencing the trials of Jesus, who is among the roll call of well-known historical figures that people the movie. Maryan depicts himself as a suffering Jew, complete with Star of David, in all sorts of grotesque positions and expressions.

Despite the undisguised angst, there is also a healthy helping of dark humor in there, too, with, for example, three bespectacled women dressed up in Ku Klux Klan regalia.

The lighting, reminiscent of early 20th-century silent movies, adds a parodic quality to the exercise, and the opening sequence shows the artist with a look on his face that might suggest apathy, bewilderment or anguish.

The ghoulish Holocaust ambiance is underscored by the soundtrack of a cantor singing a plaintive liturgical song.

What follows is a surreal parade of figures of Nazi soldiers, global personalities of the day and historical figures – Moshe Dayan, Napoleon, Yasser Arafat, Jesus, the pope, Hitler, Franco and others who peopled Maryan’s backdrop.

At one juncture, clad in a straitjacket complete with Star of David, Maryan talks about being the last of 22 concentration camp inmates lined up to be shot. He recalls how the German executioners were in such a state of inebriation that they struggled to get the job done and had to shoot each prisoner several times to complete their assignment. That left Maryan traumatized, and feeling guilty that he wasn’t dead, and with only one leg.

The film, and the Personnage set of paintings – also included in the museum spread – were the artistic aftermath to treatment Maryan underwent following a mental breakdown, after the psychoanalyst suggested he utilize his creative skills to get his life story out there. The floodgates duly opened and, within the space of one year, Maryan produced a series of close to 500 drawings he called Ecce homo.

The selected Personnage items are clearly the outpourings of a troubled soul. They could be described equally as freakish, scatological, infantile, bombastic, repulsive, erotic or even entertaining, or all at the same time. They also reminded me of graffiti I saw sprayed on the outside of subway cars in New York in the late 1970s, which was not that long after Maryan set about projecting his inner turmoil onto canvas. Once again, the Holocaust is there, albeit generally not in direct, overt terms. But you can’t fail to get the tortuous elements, the bestiality he encountered and miraculously lived to recount through his work.

For Maryan, making aliyah was worse than the Holocaust

READING MARYAN’S bio, one could easily conclude that he was born to suffer. He was met with misfortune and mistreatment at so many points along the way. After the war, at a DP camp in Cyprus in 1947, he was persuaded by a Jewish Agency representative to make aliyah. He duly boarded a ship but was more or less abandoned after reaching Haifa Port. That was after an aliyah official filled out the requisite form for the new oleh, writing “Handicapped” in the vocation box.

Maryan’s horror at being abandoned in the Promised Land was so overwhelming that he described it as more terrible than anything he had been through as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. “I realized it was worse than a concentration camp. There, I wasn’t alone; we were going to die together. But on the wharf at Haifa Port, I was going to die alone.”

Eventually, someone turned up, and the 20-year-old Holocaust survivor found himself dispatched to a senior citizens’ facility in Haifa. He later compared his feelings about being consigned to the human rubbish heap of the nascent Jewish state – as someone who was adjudged to be of no use to the realization of the Zionist dream – to the trauma he experienced in Auschwitz.

Thankfully, the “handicapped” young man managed to extricate himself from the old folks home and enrolled at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, forerunner of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. It was there that he finally got the training his gifts so richly deserved, and encountered a bunch of like-minded students, one of whom was a Romanian-born fellow Holocaust survivor named Meir Leibner, who changed his name to Maryan Marinel. Maryan adopted his name after Marinel committed suicide in 1955.

Whichever way you look at it, Maryan’s entire post-teenage life was a personal and artistic articulation of the Holocaust.

Still, I happily go along with Rosenberg’s opposition to the notion that his output was solely a reflection of that horrendous passage of time. There are direct depictions of that, such as his satirical Personnage in a Box painting of a uniformed – Nazi? – character sitting cramped in a small crate licking an ice cream. The uniform bears insignia that is clearly not a swastika, but the inference is there to be taken on board, should we so desire. The perspective and composition are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh’s claustrophobic rendition of his room in Arles. The exhibition also includes a picture of a ghostly skeletal-looking hooded figure with voluptuous lips, and a yellow and red patch with “Jude” emblazoned on its chest.
Possibly unsurprisingly, as a novice artist in the early years of the state, Maryan did not break into the big leagues here. Thankfully, however, he was supported by art curator and writer Miriam Tal, who helped to organize an exhibition of his work at the YMCA in Jerusalem. That not oly gave Maryan some kind of public profile, but it also offered an intro into the art scene in Paris, where he relocated in 1950 in a quest to further his career.

As a side note, amazingly, over the years Maryan kept up correspondence with Tal in rich flowing Hebrew, despite having spent only a couple of years here. His talents were clearly not exclusively of a visual artistic nature.

He met with a fair amount of recognition and success in the French capital. He gained a position of prominence in the postwar European neo-avant-garde, exhibiting his work at prestigious venues such as Galerie de France and at Galerie Claude Bernard, where his works were hung alongside those of renowned artists Francis Bacon and Balthus.

However, Maryan once again encountered rejection when his application for French citizenship was, for some reason, not approved. His response was to relocate to New York in 1962 with his wife, Annette, also a Holocaust survivor, where his career really took off. It helped that he had previously exhibited at the famed André Emmerich Gallery in the Big Apple.

Rosenberg’s view of Maryan as an artist, and her declared intent to steer clear of any neatly delineated definitions of his output, informed the presentational layout in Tel Aviv.

“The exhibition is not arranged chronologically,” she explains. “If we had set it out chronologically, we would have taken a very narrow view of it, only of his life story and about him.”

We are immediately introduced to the eclectic swath of influences that seasoned Maryan’s sphere of thought and expression. After our left-foot start, about the main thrust of the artist’s creative channel, the curator unfurls tangible evidence of Maryan’s philosophy.

“Look all around you,” she says, pointing me in the direction of a motley polychromic array of works of art and cultural artifacts, which feed off a variety of cultural and ethnic baggage. “Maryan mainly talks about the human condition in the second half of the 20th century. He is talking about his own generation. And what is his generation?”

I hesitantly inquire whether that might, in some way or other, relate to the Holocaust. Rosenberg was having none of that.

“This is a generation in trauma,” she states. “Yes, that trauma, for him, also includes the Holocaust.” But it is not just about that, however seismic a life chapter that may have been for him.

She refers me to the movie. “He talks about his own story, but there is lots of footage and images that come from the 20th century – the Ku Klux Klan, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and Marilyn Monroe. He proclaims that he knows what all that is about. He wasn’t in Vietnam, but he knows about human suffering.”

Maryan may not have lived a long and happy life, but he certainly lived it. That oozes out of the retrospective from every direction.

Over 40 years after he died, and more than seven decades after he left Israel, never to return in person, “My Name is Maryan” is an enlightening show and a fitting tribute to a bare-knuckled artist, a scarred and vibrant artist. ■

‘My Name is Maryan’ closes on May 27. For more information: www.tamuseum.org.il/he/exhibition/my-name-maryan

Load more