Maryan, Personnage in a Box (1962) Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan, New York
By Tom Seymour
Ecce Homo is Latin for "behold the man”—the words Pontius Pilate is said to have shouted before the braying crowd as he held Jesus Christ, crowned with thorns, soon to die on the cross.
Maryan, the forgotten artist who survived Auschwitz and is now newly remembered in death, used “Ecce Homo” as the title of the only film he ever made.
Ecco Homo was shot in 1975 at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where Maryan, who was 48 at the time, lived and worked throughout his life in America. It was one of the artist’s final major works. He died of a heart attack on 15 June 1977 while in his studio, less than two years after the film was made.
Ecco Homo took a year to create. It was 90 minutes long, shot entirely in black and white and on 16mm film. It was inspired by the contents of nine notebooks packed full of 478 drawings, each 20cm by 30cm. The drawings were created in 1971 at the behest of Maryan’s therapist, for the artist had suffered a huge mental breakdown; for months on end, Maryan was rendered unable to speak and at times had to be incarcerated in a secure institution.
The contents of the notebooks were ”the story of my life”, the artist said—the therapist encouraged Maryan to pictorially exorcise the experiences of his childhood.
Maryan was born as Pinkas Bursztyn in 1927 to Abraham Schindel and Gitla Bursztyn, a working class, observant Jewish couple from Nowy Sącz, Poland. Pinkas’s family were captured by the Nazis in 1939. Pinkas was imprisoned, initially at Rzeszów ghetto, before finally being sent to Auschwitz in 1944.
In the film, Maryan recounts the memory of first arriving in Auschwitz, already separated from his parents. He would be inmate A17986. On the first night in the camp, he was selected for execution. A Nazi guard fired his weapon into the group of 22 fellow Jews also chosen to die. Maryan was hit in the face, but was later found alive amongst the corpses of those selected. Despite his injury, Maryan managed to blend into the camp’s living population, and ultimately was able to survive until its liberation.
“I was astonished; why did they let me live on,” Maryan recounts in the film, almost like a mantra. “For kicks, they let me live for fun, just like they killed others for fun, for nothing.”
How does one even begin to confront such an experience through art? His film is able to recount these unimaginable experiences with an incredibly rich and multivalent visual literacy, moving fluently between a series of staged recollections and re-enactments upon which photographic images and contemporary news footage, as well as Maryan’s own paintings, drawings and lithographs, are overlaid.
And this is the crux. Ecco Homo was shot as the Vietnam war reached its dog days. Shortly after the film was completed, US soldiers fled the country and Ho Chi Minh’s soldiers flooded into Saigon. Maryan uses the film to recount the trauma he experienced during the Holocaust, relating it to the world he saw around him. Although he clearly could not reconcile himself with the past, he still used the film to relate the past with his present. For Maryan was just not concerned with what history had done to his body, life and mind. He was willing to empathise and relate his own experience with the events happening to other people of other races and nationalities.
In the film’s opening sequence, Maryan edits together images of his art alongside pictures of the Ku Klux Klan, the My-Lai massacre in Vietnam and Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile. He used montage and film-essay techniques to create empathetic bonds with those suffering at the hands of authoritarianism and extremism in his time.
Maryan’s life after Auschwitz had a cinematic sweep. While in a refugee centre for displaced survivors of the Holocaust, his leg was amputated. That did not stop Maryan from making his way, in 1947, to what would soon become Israel. He studied art for the first time in Jerusalem and, by 1950, was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Maryan arrived in New York in 1962 with his wife Annette on a boat called the Leonardo da Vinci. He made the Chelsea Hotel his home and studio. His work remained there, protected by Annette, for many years after his death.
Maryan was not totally obscure in his life. In various group shows on both sides of the Atlantic, his work was exhibited alongside the chosen doyens of art history; in Europe, alongside Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Alberto Giacometti, and in America alongside Andy Warhol. But he was never accorded the recognition of which he was surely worthy. While his death was recorded—The New York Times ran a short obituary—it was only fleetingly registered, and his name soon drifted from the art world’s short memory.
Today, Maryan is being newly appraised as among the few major artists to have directly witnessed the most extreme and traumatic events of the Holocaust.
Last November a landmark retrospective of Maryan’s life’s work, titled My Name is Maryan and curated by Alison M. Gingeras, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA).
The show was the first retrospective to examine all of Maryan's life and work across four decades. Its opening was followed by the announcement on 6 January that Maryan’s estate would be represented by a major gallery, Paris-based Kamel Mennour, for the first time.
The gallery has a solo show of his work planned for spring spring 2022. The MOCA retrospective remains on view until 20 March, after which it will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2023, marking the first time Ecce Homo will be viewable in the globe’s only sovereign homeland of Jewish people.
Maryan was traumatised and a victim. But he was not just a traumatised victim. He was able to use art to respond, to stand against, to locate, relate and testify. In doing so, he outdid the extremists who tried to erase him. Maryan’s bodily remains are today buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. But, even in death, he remains insistently alive, his vivid creations more pressing still.
My Name is Maryan, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, until 20 March