As this blog reflects on the past and present artists whose work is/was largely expressive and full of socially charged Humanist imagery, one perfect candidate for discussion is Maryan S. Maryan. I first heard of Maryan through discussions with both Rhino Horn co-founder Peter Passuntino, and the late Figurative Expressionist Irving Kriesberg. Passuntino had brought up his name immediately as the first response to a question I had posed while I was initially interviewing the members of Rhino Horn. The question was “which other contemporary artists would you have included in Rhino Horn?” While Maryan never did become a member, Passuntino always held his work in such high regard. While his unabashed paintings are a sight to behold, Maryan’s biography makes for just as remarkable of a story.
Maryan S. Maryan was born as Pinchus Burstein in Nowy Sącz, Poland in the year 1927. During World War II Burstein was incarcerated in the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz for six years. His father, a baker, was killed in Auschwitz along with the rest of his family. After being the lone surviving family member of harsh and horrific Nazi inhumanity, Burstein would spend the next two years in a German refugee camp (known as a “camp for displaced persons” or a “DP Camp”).
In 1947, he moved to Israel and studied art at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Burstein arrived in Paris in 1950 to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts for three years. Burstein – who used the moniker Maryan S. Maryan when he moved to New York City and became a U.S citizen in 1969 – had early success as an artist in both Israel and France. His first solo exhibition was in 1949 at the YMCA in Jerusalem. Early themes in his paintings and drawings were largely Jewish, having experienced first hand the horrors of World War II and the genocide of the Jews throughout Europe. His mature work, and the work he’s most known for are what he called ”Personages.” These works depicted a single figure painted in grotesque and expressive forms.
The monsters that Maryan conjured represented all that was ugly, dark, and obscene within humanity. The “Personages” were often sinister looking bestial figures with features that would make even the scariest horror movie demons seem tame. The figures were as Grace Glueck observed “Petty, sly and dumb, they are not only oppressors, but victims as well. Justifiably, Maryan sees the world with the true democracy of a misanthrope, but he has succeeded in making his grim autobiography into art.”
Maryan lost his leg in Auschwitz after being shot by a guard, and he died in 1977 at the age of 50 due to a heart attack. In his relatively short life he made a larger than life impact to those who came across both the artist and his art. Below are two videos (in Polish) of a 2010 Tribute to Maryan held in his hometown of Nowy Sacz, Poland.