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The Artist Who Survived Auschwitz Thought Israel Was 'Worse Than the Concentration Camp'

January 26, 2023

Painting by Maryan titled Personnage with Hood and Donkey Ears from 1971

Maryan, "Personnage with Hood and Donkey Ears," 1971. Oil on canvas. courtesy of Spertus Institute, Chicago. Credit: Elad Sarig / Courtesy of Spertus Institute, Chicago.

Archival photograph of Maryan in his art studio in Paris in 1955 or 1956

Maryan (Pinchas Burstein) at his studio on Rue des Suisses, Paris, 1955-56. Credit: Unknown photographer

Painting by Maryan titled Personnage (Soldat) from 1974

Maryan, 'Personnage (Soldat),' 1974. Oil on canvas. Credit: Elad Sarig / Beth Rudin DeWoody collection

Exhibition curator Noa Rosenberg photographed in the exhibition My Name is Maryan at the Tel Aviv Museum

Noa Rosenberg, the curator of modern art at the Tel Aviv Museum. Credit: Elad Sarig

Painting by Maryan titled Self Portrait from 1952

'Self Portrait' by Maryan, 1952. 'It is also said that I am a bad person (this is also true)' Credit: Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Archival photograph of Maryan at his studio on Rue de Suisse in Paris in 1955 or 1956

Maryan at his studio on Rue des Suisses, Paris, 1955-56.

Installation photo of My Name is Maryan at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

From Maryan's exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Credit: Elad Sarig

Painting by Maryan titled Personnage from 1972

Maryan, 'Personnage,' 1972. Acrylic and gouache on paper. Collection of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, gift of Allan Rich, Los Angeles, through the American Friends of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1983. Credit: Elad Sarig, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Work on board by Maryan titled Personnage I from 1963

Maryan, 'Personnage I, 1963. Ink on board. Credit: Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Painting by Maryan titled Personnage on a Blue Background from 1968

Maryan, 'Personnage on a Blue Background,' 1968. Oil on canvas. Credit: Elad Sarig

Painting by Maryan titled Personnage from 1972

Maryan, 'Personnage," 1972. Oil on canvas. Private Collection, Japan. Credit: Elad Sarig.

by Naama Riba

In the spring of 1947, a ship carrying Jews who had been imprisoned by the British in Cyprus docked in Haifa. The future painter Pinchas Burstein, better known by the name he later adopted, Maryan, disembarked alone. After being questioned as to where he was from and where he was headed, he underwent a short physical checkup, after which he received an identity card stating that his vocation was “handicapped.” He received this designation because his leg had been amputated in a displaced persons camp in Europe after he had been shot during the death march from Auschwitz.

In 1974, in an interview he gave amid an exhibition at the Galerie de France in Paris, he related the shock he felt at the reception he got after immigrating to Israel. “I had come from the concentration camps!” he said. "After I received the identity paper I was left alone on the pier. no one approached me."

He found a seat on a pile of oranges, and waited for someone to come and retrieve him. "I waited for several hours and suddenly I became frightened. I began to see the truth. No one was waiting for me… They left me on the pier. After a while I understood that this was worse than the concentration camp, since there I wasn't alone; there we went to die together. But on the pier in the port of Haifa, I was going to die alone."

This low point of his life was the start of a short artistic career in Israel, after which he moved to Paris and New York. There, he died from a sudden heart attack at the age of 50 as a recognized and well-established painter, leaving behind a large corpus of work. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is now hosting a large exhibition of his works, including 120 paintings and 300 documents.

This is the second time that a retrospective of Maryan’s work has been held in Israel. The first one was in 1979, curated by Ilana Salama Ortar. Like other international exhibitions at the museum, it is a collaboration with another institution, this time the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) North Miami. The two curators are Noa Rosenberg, the curator of modern art at the Tel Aviv Museum, and Alison M. Gingeras, an independent curator and art researcher from New York, who has worked with major museums and galleries in Europe and the United States, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York.

Before the Holocaust, he had never formally studied art, but he had already been considered a gifted painter in his childhood in Poland. In the part of his autobiography which appeared in the catalog of the 1979 exhibition, he related that when he was just 7 or 8 years old, his mother used to tell her neighbors that he was the best artist in town. “I now think now that she was too modest,” he wrote.

Burstein had been promised that, upon his arrival in Israel, he would be sent to a kibbutz or a youth community. Instead, the 18-year-old was sent to a nursing home – then called an "old folk's home," in Haifa's Bat Galim neighborhood. Three weeks after his arrival, Burstein submitted, with the help of the Jewish Agency, a request to be assessed by the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. In October 1947, he attended a preparatory class for applied graphic design at the “New Bezalel” academy.

Burstein believed the nascent Israel to be "artistically provincial,” says Rosenberg. In the early 1970s, after leading a secluded and bourgeois life with his wife Annette, they divorced, but remained in close contact. He moved to the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where he was surrounded by artists from the Beat Generation movement. Many of his works were purchased during his lifetime, and he attained recognition from galleries and collectors.

Chilling, colorful, crazy, sexual

In the Tel Aviv exhibition, the paintings and sketches by Burstein – henceforth referred to by his artistic name, Maryan – are pained, chilling, colorful, crazy, sexual. His inspiration seems to have ranged from African masks to the dog Balak from a story by S.Y. Agnon, from Kafka to memories of the Holocaust. He was influenced by Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon. When he died, he was eulogized by his friend, the poet Natan Zach. “He died as he had lived: not a ‘cursed artist,’ but a great painter in accursed times.”

This exhibition began as a chance meeting between American art collector Adam Lindemann, the owner of the Venus Over Manhattan gallery in New York, and Chana Sheldon, the executive director of MOCA. Lindemann, who had been buying Maryan’s works for years, was showing some of these at the Art Basel show. Sheldon, whose grandmother had hidden during World War II with Maryan’s wife Annette, had heard about him since her childhood and was familiar with his work. Their meeting sparked the idea of a joint exhibition in Tel Aviv.

Lindemann knew Gingeras, and the latter started researching for this exhibition four years ago, which Rosenberg later joined. The works were amassed from dozens of private collectors and from galleries and museums around the world. The documents and accompanying photos come from archives in Poland, Germany, Paris, New York and Israel. Many of them are on display for the first time.

There is no organized timeline for this exhibition, which sweeps the viewer into the storm of the artist’s inner world. At the entrance is a space reminiscent of Maryan's studio at the Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s (whose famous visitors included Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Willem de Kooning). On the walls of his studio, he hung his paintings in a dense pattern, along with African masks and sculpture he had collected, Mexican death masks and toys.

The curators recreated this to some extent by working pieces from his original mask collection into the display of paintings; the missing parts of the Chelsea African art collection were generously filled in by donations to the exhibition from the Dina & Michael Weiss Collection of African Art. “It was important for us that it be similar to the original in terms of period, style and region, even if they weren’t the same works that Maryan had,” says Rosenberg. “We wanted these to be mainly African masks that reached New York in the same years and sold from the lobbies of two hotels near the Chelsea.”

The space gives the impression of a place of worship. It includes paintings such as “Cross,” and one of his “personnage” paintings, a term Maryan used to describe half-human, half-machine hybrid figures. In “Cross,” the crucified figure is in pain, but he is also defiant, sticking out his tongue. On the wall are other personnages on round canvases, vomiting out their innards. Another prominent – and somewhat mystical – painting is a polyptych of four personnages with tongues and guts extruded, behind them a female and male figure exposing their sexual organs.

We’ve found him to be talented'

Maryan was born in 1927 to Abraham Schindel and Gitla Burstein, in the city of Nowy Sacz in Poland. At the age of 12, when the Nazis invaded Poland, he fled with his parents, older sister and younger brother to the town of Baranow; the family was caught in 1940. He and his father were sent to a labor camp. He never saw his mother, sister or brother again. His father was murdered in 1942, and Maryan moved from camp to camp until 1944, when he ended up in Auschwitz. During the death march he was shot in his leg, which was later amputated.

Two weeks after he submitted his application to Bezalel, he received a letter from artist Mordecai Ardon, the director of Bezalel at the time, who told him he had been accepted into the department of applied graphics. “We’ve found the applicant to be talented,” the letter said. Ardon informed Maryan that he would study for three years, paying 30 liras a year instead of 45, due to his disability.

He moved to Jerusalem, and at Bezalel he met other Holocaust survivors, such as Avigdor Arikha and Maryan Marinel, who were born in Romania, and Yehuda Bacon, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, and lives in Jerusalem to this day. In the afternoons, Maryan painted in his apartment in the Talitha Kumi building, and also designed costumes and props for Rina Nikova's ballet performances. He was introduced to art critic Miriam Tal, who would become his financial and professional patron, as well as his friend.

At Bezalel, Holocaust survivors were forbidden from depicting the traumas they experienced, and studies were geared toward designing banners, stamps, schoolbooks and other products. “They wanted to train the Israeli graphic artist, the weaver and metalworker, all of them for the sake of society, not for their individual souls,” says Rosenberg.

In a meeting with Yehuda Bacon ahead of this exhibition, he told her of the friendship between the four artists. “We had one thing in common: all of us existed in various holes which we crawled out off. We were 17-, 18-year-olds and far from normal. Among ourselves we could talk about what we had seen but we knew that others would never be able to understand it. Maryan and I were together at the broadcast of a news reel that showed the liberation of the camps. Everyone was shocked and covered their eyes. We laughed out loud, because they showed something like ten bodies… nothing, compared to what we’d seen."


One of the photos at the exhibition depicts Maryan sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette and painting three wounded Palmach fighters who are leaning on each other; in front of them is a table bearing a bottle of wine and perhaps some fruit. According to Rosenberg, this may be the only painting that fit into the mode of Israeli art during the period, in terms of composition and subject matter.

The photo also shows part of another painting displayed in this retrospective, “Crematorium at Auschwitz,” from 1949. It is one of the most shocking and impressive works on display. It is a large painting depicting bare-chested women at the moment of death, their faces turned toward the sky, their bodies in positions reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica. “In terms of the painting’s size, its expressiveness and frontal nudity, Burstein was ahead of his time in a discourse that couldn't find its place in late 1940s Israel,” says Rosenberg.

In January 1950, just before he left Israel, Maryan held his first solo exhibition in the lecture hall of the YMCA building in Jerusalem, curated by David Palombo, Yehuda Haezrahi and Miriam Tal. "Burstein's pictures are 'minor earthquakes' – not only because of their subject matter, but also – and chiefly – because of the way he expresses himself.” read the pamphlet accompanying the exhibition.

Rosenberg says that Maryan considered himself to be a bad person (his acquaintances say otherwise), “but that was his way of characterizing his artistic persona – not as a victim. Maryan discussed through his work, as well as in paintings most directly addressing the Holocaust, the state of man in the world after the jolt humanity went through during the war.”

In the autobiographical text Maryan wrote, which is included in the 1979 catalogue, he said: “I force nobody to like my paintings, but let no one label them, for example, 'denunciatory paintings,' 'aggressiveness.' Or people say 'it's not surprising with his past experience in the concentration camps.'” He added, "Most of what has been written about me is bullshit. It is also said that I am a bad person (this is also true)."


Fainting over Modigliani

Before he moved to Paris, he decided to be born again, changing his name from Pinchas Burstein to Maryan. “Maryan is a clearly Christian name, a masculine version of the Virgin Mary's name, which brings to mind his over-identification with the agony of the crucified,” says Rosenberg. In the catalog, the curators write: “Maryan seems to declare his arrival in the world through a virgin birth, with no need for a father or mother. This act of self-creation is intensified by the doubling of his name, with both his first and family names being Maryan: Maryan S. Maryan.”

It took him a while to acclimatize to Paris. He chronicles the period in letters to Miriam Tal. In May 1950, he wrote her: “I have been reborn… Everything is new… I have help with the academy, with work, with everything. I'm being cared for like a child. There's a chance that my situation will improve a bit. For the time being I'm not sleeping at night, tossing and turning like a madman and thinking how I wish everything goes well.

He also wrote about wandering through museums. “I am just leaving the Musée d'Art Moderne. I saw a big Modigliani exhibition. They brought over almost all his originals from Italy. I almost fainted on the spot. I saw originals by the masters: Matisse, Picasso, Rouault, Modigliani, F. Leger, A. Lhote, S. Dalí, Pascin, Dufy, Laurencin, Maillol and many others.” He wrote that he was doing little, and did not know what to paint. “They say it will pass. I have no company here and no acquaintances. I get very bored. There’s a lot to see, galleries and all sorts of exhibitions, but it's a bit hard. If you travel by Metro, you spend all your time.”

Some time after arriving in Paris, he met Annette Sonnenblueck, a Holocaust survivor from Antwerp. “She was ten years older than him; they probably met while he was painting in the street. She saw him and pitied him and offered him a meal. I believe they then discovered that both of them were Holocaust survivors. They both had no families and became each other’s family,” says Rosenberg.

At the end of the 1950s, after several years of artistic searching, Maryan began his "personnage" paintings. A year later, he held his first solo exhibition in New York, at the Andre Emmerich Gallery. He also took part in an exhibition of contemporary French art, mounted by the Israeli Association of Museums at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv. In 1961, he was invited by a French editor to create an album of sketches called “The Human Menagerie,” in which he continued with his personnage paintings and the study of the human condition, using grotesque images which combine animals and uniform-clad human figures. The current exhibition has several series that are among his best works – black and white drawings around the theme of Napoleon, and drawings of slaughtered animals in the spirit of Goya.

After several relatively tranquil years in an apartment with Annette, with the United States in turmoil over the Vietnam War, he moved to the Chelsea Hotel. There, again, he experienced a tempest of emotions. Gingeras met the artist Michel Auder, who knew Maryan during that period. He remembered chance meetings with Maryan in the lobby or the elevator, as well as the artistic and social hierarchy at the hotel according to floor levels. "Prostitutes and dealers came and went on the first and second floors, groupies were on the third floor, and rockers like the New York Dolls lived on the fourth and fifth floors," he explained. "The higher you’d go up, the more established the artists, writers and composers were.” Gingeras explains that Maryan's new life in this experimental, countercultural hierarchy was a world apart from how he spent the previous decade.

During that period, Maryan, like many concentration camp survivors, started seeing a psychiatrist. At the latter’s recommendation, he started filling diaries with more than 400 drawings and texts, documenting what he remembered from the war and his childhood in Nowy Sacz. The original notebooks are in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the exhibition shows scans of these notebooks on four screens, as an endless continuum of figures with amputated legs, Nazis, fighters, wounded and screaming men, vomiting figures, and other images.

At the exhibit's end, there is an experimental one-and-a half-hour film Maryan made with Kenny Schneider. It is called "Ecce Homo," ("Behold, the man") inspired by the figure of Jesus, and is constructed around a personal, stream-of-consciousness monologue by Maryan. It begins and ends with sounds of a cantor and bursts of gunfire, with key images of 20th century culture embedded throughout the film, as well as images from American pop culture and the Vietnam War, alongside characters such as Hitler, Stalin, Yasser Arafat and Marilyn Monroe.

His super power

“He wanted to live,” says Rosenberg. “His ability to pull himself out of the pit and keep creating, that was his super power. Everything was mixed up for him: anger, sadness, hatred, love. The discourse in Israel in those years did not allow that, and that disconnected him from local artists who later became dominant. I think he resembled more the literary generation of his time, such as Pinchas Sade and [his Bezalel classmate] Yoram Kaniuk. He had a close friendship with Natan Zach and Yehuda Haezrahi. We can now try to situate the artistic mechanism that drove his work, in relation to his generation.”

A year before his death in 1977, Maryan was asked in an interview, which appears in the catalog of the 1979 exhibition, how he sees his future as an artist. “I’m very much afraid. At the end of World War II, when we came out of the concentration camps, we were sure that death didn't exist anymore and we would live forever," he said. "But the years pass, and suddenly you understand that death does exist after all, and although I am not over 80 like Chagall, I am afraid of death… We must see the world, but this is a very difficult experience. all of this burden can be seen in my paintings."

Maryan, who was confronting a real fear of death for the first time, actually died shortly after he said these words. The paintings he left behind, however, reflect the souls of people who lived during that war, and despite expectations, they are not sunken or gray, with a dying soul. Like Maryan, they are beautiful, full of passion and vitality, and the will to talk about life and death.

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