Nabil Kanso’s Lebanon: Guernica of Our Time

                                                                            Lars Bäckström

When I read about war, terrorism, plane hijacking, massacres, and the expulsion of landless refugee, I think of Nabil Kanso who paints this hell on earth.

Annika and I met him in Atlanta in the autumn of 1984. We were attending an exhibition in which a large painting attracted our attention: Two wild Knights riding toward each other in an explosion swarming the canvas. They represent in the painting the Apocalypse Riders who are also the riders of war in Lebanon, his native country.

Kanso comes from a family of linen traders, and he always paints on linen. He is well educated, and has a solid background in architecture, political science, philosophy, and art. We talked at length, and a few days later, we visited his studio in Atlanta where for years he has been painting like a madman. With frequent visits over the last few years to Lebanon, and has come to the conclusion that it just gets worse with more violence and massacres every time he is there. He has the groups from the civil war with members of his family belonging to Druze, Christian and Muslim. They are fighting each other over those religions , he says, now they all have a common religion, it is called violence.

The civil war in Lebanon has been the subject of his large paintings since the war started in 1975 when he had his studio in New York and held several exhibitions. He found the interest of an important man, the first director of the Museum of Modern art, Alfred Barr who attended Kanso’s shows and praised his work. His paintings received attention from a number of art critics and museum curators.

At such a crucial time he experiencing two shocking events. The first was the terrible loss of his studio and its contents of more than 700 paintings. The second came about a year later when the civil war in his native country, Lebanon broke out in 1975. The war somehow gave him a certain distance from the problems he was facing and got him painting again. He worked intensely on enormous canvases expressing the anguish of the subject. As the intensity and scale of the works expanded, he needed a large studio, and found one in Atlanta in during his travel shows through the South in 1980. 

Nabil Kanso appears calm and quiet. But the light of fire in his paintings look like nightmares which he has to work through, often spending several months on one painting. Figures after figures with their hands over their faces, fallen over, crawling in a cave like place, clambering up a sheer cliff of what seems to be a sea of blood, sometimes like cavemen, sometimes women fleeing from burning homes… Half naked people come falling from the skies to join the crowd below. ..White teeth shine horribly…people bite each other. His enormous painting "Lebanon" -measuring about 9 meters long- is one of the many hanging in his studio. Here, it is not the Knight of the Apocalypse riding toward each other, rather two women in the center, stretching out towards each other and almost reaching. To their left a horse and a Druze Sheikh seem to confront us with a desperate calling. A fallen girl appears with closed eyes between the horse and the sheikh. A large dark bird covering a half hid sun hovers over the contour of trees projecting flames amid the destruction of houses. The ruins farthest assume the shape of a slope with cave openings. The painting "Lebanon" shows the desperation of war. The women are classical abstractions and modern mothers of peace. Along with the children in the suffering mess, they wound up in an explosive dance of warm calling to humanity. The work of Kanso’s brush is an indignant expressionism. Kanso’s "Lebanon" may be our time’s version of Picasso’s protest against the war in Spain in 1937, the Guernica of our time.

Lars Bäckström, "Guernica of Our Time" Ord & Bild, January, 1986 Stockholm, Sweden.
Exhibition: Malmö Konsthall


Lebanon, Oil, 10X28 ft (300X850cm), 1983
Apocalyptic Riders, oil, 2.75 X 4.50 meters (9X15 feet)