The Split of Life
"Imagine a painting with the scale and chaos of Picasso's Guernica mixed with the super populated torment of the apocalypse panel of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Delights, all painted with a dark, fiery palette and frantic, almost panicked brushstrokes, and you'll have an idea of Nabil Kanso's paintings. While far from a complete retrospective of his career, these three oversized books present more than 230 reproductions and are the best way to see Kanso's work if you don't live in Atlanta (where he maintains his studio) or Latin America (where he has exhibited extensively).
The Split of Life focuses on his large-format paintings (many around 30 feet long and 10 feet tall) done between 1974 and 1994. Massive bodies -tangled, distorted- dominate these paintings, filling almost every space... Chaos and torment burst from the paintings with little to contextualize them but the paintings' title: Eleven Seconds (Nagasaki), Vietnam, Lebanon. But even this context is hardly necessary because these paintings are not soo much about events as about raw emotional expression; Kanso isn't interested in narrating or mediating these nightmarish explosions for us. If all this sounds overwhelming, it can be. But just when this dark energy begins to constrict around the viewer unbearably, Kanso surprises. The unique perspective of his Crucifixion sets us behind Christ's Cross witnessing, along with many other hollow faces, an indistinct Jesus set off from the chaotic backgound by a searing white aura. Lebanon, full of the tumultuous panic of innocents caught in war, is reminiscent of Picasso's Guernica in composition and theme. Amid the horror, two women reach out toward a tiny pearl of while light at the center of the canvas, for protection, or to protect it, I don't know, but the image is moving. Kanso' sparing use of white distinguishes the best of these paintings. So stunning against the black, yellow, red, and orange that flow over these works, this white seems to pierce the canvas and gives the paintings the balance and strength they need to grasp the emotions Kanso tries to portray.
Inspired by Goethe's drama and Shakespeare's tragedy, the paintings from Faust and Othello are generally much smaller and less populated....Once again these paintings make no effort to narrate the tales that inspired them, but dive into an exploration of the emotions of the characters. Some of the most interesting works in Faust come close to abstraction, while in Othello, Kanso concentrates on depicting the embraces of Othello and Desdemona. From tender and loving, these deteriorate into confusion and rage. In both series of paintings, Kanso uses the same energetic brushstrokes as in The Split of Life, but with the smaller painting surface, the brushstrokes seem even more aggressive, often giving the figures the immediacy of gestural sketches. All three books have rather vague, unhelpful introductions by the artist. Don't worry, this is a minor flow; the energy and emotion of Nabil Kanso's paintings speak for themselves."
Bob Wehner, The Bloomsbury Review, July / August 1998
"The Split of Life deals with war and human suffering. The victims are the newborn torn out of wombs or clinging to mothers fleeing from scenes of catastrophes and disasters. Motherhood is important with Kanso's women; you see mothers at the moment of birth and death holding children in their arms. The bars that recur from one work to another are sometimes placed at the woman's womb. It is not clear if freedom is placed inside the woman's body or in the outer world. the children suffer with their mothers as fire, storms, or ice intensifies the human situation. The noted lack of greens in Kanso's art marks his criticism of destruction of the environment. Nothing can grow during war. Flesh and blood appears to be everywhere. Water is for drowning or for freezing. Icicles look like hairy insect legs or barbed wire. The rarely discerned sky sometimes reveal a glimpse of the forefathers like pale blue ghosts who horrifiedly look down at their descendants. ...
The Faust series consists of over 150 paintings evoked by Goethe's poem. The works deal with part I and II of Faust and bring forth various aspects of the drama such as the encounter with the angels and the orgies in the Walpurgis Night. Some of Goethe's poems of those scenes were cut by the censors...The paintings created in 1976-79 depict unreined lust. Human exist in a split between good and evil. Light seem to emerge from fires or through broken and penetrable bars.
The Othello paintings were shown in Atlanta in 1985 in conjunction with a performance of Shakespeare's tragedy. After having hung the show, Kanso returned the next day to view it, and to his surprise found that all the paintings were taken down without anybody notifying him about it. In the South, Othello is considered a daring play because of the love between a black man and a white woman. The paintings were said to be "too much" and too provocative. The fact that the paintings were about jealousy, slander, and color as symbols was never discussed. A tense beam goes through Kanso's art, the sky turns red like blood as light comes through the fire that burns.
Fire, ice, floods, barbs, thorns, wild animals, and prison bars are mixed with destruction and lust. Human and animals with human faces perish together on the day of wrath, maybe by nuclear weapons. Noah's flood and the horses of the Apocalypse appear in the conscious of the viewer. It was not coincidal that the 1986 exhibition at the Malmo Konsthall was named "Inside Out." The combined interest in the outerworld as it is often filled with horrors, and an inner world appearing as symbols and myths of the outer world is prominent in Kanso's art. Kanso's grasp of religion, art history, and myth are evident in his work. He uses all his knowledge as a starting point from which his art develops, springs out and expands through his paintings. It is hard to point out that the Chernobyl accident occured at about the same time as the Malmo exhibition. The apocalyptic paintings were indeed relevant... People of different nationality and religions are united in suffering and passion in these works of art. How nabil is able to see so much and "orks" (work with intense fusion of mental and physical energy) as they say in Swedish? The answer appears in the pictures.
Established religion like to concern themselves with these questions, but they don't always see visual answers as a painter does. What kind of a future do we have? What were our origins and history like? Do we differ from animals and how? Do we forget? How do the strong and the weak differ in feelings? A painter who appears to be in so many places in the world gives us urgent answers
Ronnog Seaberg, Nabil Kanso: A Life Work. Var Lösen, September 1997 issue, Stockholm, Sweden.
The Art of Nabil Kanso
"We stand in front of an intelligent, sensible and passionate testimony of a teacher of love and torment. Nabil Kanso’s paintings provoke, shock, awaken, and make us understand what it is to be human."
Luis Camilio Guevara, Universal. Caracas
"Nabil Kanso’s monumental paintings are powerful expressions of the desperation of wars…Masses of figures wound up in an explosive dance of warm calling to humanity…His forceful painting Lebanon is our times version of Picasso’s Guernica."
Lars Backstrom, Ord & Bild. Sweden
"Kanso’s outstanding mural-scale paintings are a cross between the specificity of Goya’s ‘Horror of War’ and the universality of Picasso’s Guernica. With broad turbulent strokes, he paints horrific tales of man as a monster… To stand in the central space surrounded by Nabil Kanso’s 12-foot-high paintings is as close as you get to being in the middle of a fire. Using lurid oranges, yellows and reds, Kanso fills every inch of canvas with visions of violence and human suffering that rival medieval descriptions of Hell. But Kanso’s frenzied meditations on man’s inhumanity have a more contemporary source. The horrors of war in his native Lebanon have fueled the fires that burn in these effective paintings."
Catherine Fox, Atlanta Journal/Constitution
"It is hard to believe one man had done all of this work…Kanso's canvases are a tapestry of souls… painted rhythm of naked spirits climbing an interminable Jacob’s ladder in a metaphorical conflagration which repulses and sucks us all in."
Steve Seaberg, Art Papers
"The magnitude of Nabil Kanso’s paintings places the viewer in the midst of a beautiful and a violent cage. His strong color and powerful brushstrokes blend with the subject matter: World chaos. The size of his canvases is more than big, it is heroic. The Battle against large format cannot be won but with a strong determination and a firm mastery of technique… It is here that you find the hand of the real artist beside the painter: a man with a faculty, a meaning, a longing and a point."
Hugo Figueroa, Panaroma. Venezuela
"This is the work of a born artist who goes far beyond the wooden dummies painted by so many others. Just to go over a list of possible expressions shows how much of life and art these others have missed."
Gordon Brown, Arts Magazine
"Absolutely unique in style… Nabil Kanso is one of the few artists working today who creates significant paintings that open up the visions and ideals of apocalyptic art."
Peran Ermini, Nacional, Caracas
"Nabil Kanso presents us with a view of the world through the boundary situations of love, death, suffering and guildt. He gives us whar a world of mass media, high technology and war has forgotten; a respect for our feelings and consequently he reminds us of the freedom of our mind. Through his paintings, Nabil Kanso demands our rights as human beings. Because he produces these works against the framework of contemporary politics, rather than from within the political structures, each painting is a rebirth of man rather than a reiteration of worn out themes. He gives us what is continually threatened: Our humanity."
Gail Kurlansky, Art Papers
"Nabil Kanso's universe is full of carnal essences and existences, imaginary and real, visible and invisible, the discovery of truth by way of looking and seeing what is hidden in the occult wisdom of the artistic science. Upon arriving at a sensible meaning, we find ourselves beyond perceptive intuition. It is the memory's doing what makes reflections of a generator of such expressive forcefulness whose genius is the fact of the great truth. The truth of Nabil Kanso, a compulsive being substantiated by a beautiful faculty."
Ildebrando Rossi, Critica, Venezuela