Lebanon: Vortices of Wrath, Triptych, oil, 10 X 28 feet (300 X 760cm), 1977

    The Apocalyptic Paintings of Nabil Kanso

                                     Peran Erminy

The exceptional power to move people feelings and engage the viewer’s interest and involvement conveys an effective synthesis in the work of Nabil Kanso. The installation of his monumental paintings project an immense space charged with a high level of intensity closely connected to the tension and anxiety that we face in the world today. We seem to live in a permanent state of insecurity and violence where one aggression or another can be expected at any time, putting us continually on the brink of any possible war.

In his works, Kanso reveals a gloomy and troubled world filled with images of pathos and tensions that reach extreme intensity. He expresses a juncture between his supercharged psyche and our anxiety and fear, provoking the explosion we see and feel in his paintings. Unlike some works in which the depicted scene of anguish denotes the incoming of some sort of threat or possible disaster that may occur, Kanso’s paintings show what is already happening. In his work terror has already begun and the flames seem eternal. It is not some accident or a disaster of nature. Rather a man-made hell in which everything is condemned. Here the force of Kanso’s brush emits violent figures engulfed by a whirlwind of flames and forms that enclose them. Their suffering and torment seem to have always existed. They bear the pain and continue to remain in this dreadful state which is dictated by a delinquent social reality. But now, they exist in a new and different reality created by the artist imagination on big canvases in which they make their case as condemned beings. Their presence disturbs and troubles us. We find ourselves immersed in their world whose reality becomes our own reality.

Our compulsive reaction to these effective mechanisms of identification and projection mirror our inner darkness and force us to go down into the bottom of the "beings swamp." This sense of feeling and reaction is heightened by the projected intensity that shifts between the reality of war and terror raging in the world, and the reality depicted in the mural paintings that surround us with a confrontational environment from which it is difficult to escape. We come face to face with the reality painted by Nabil Kanso and the reality of war currently raging in his native Lebanon and other countries as well as the looming constant threat of star wars threatening a total nuclear destruction.

All forms of aggressions, conflicts, terrorisms, and war crimes are multiplying and hastily making their way in cities and nations where insecurity, injustice, and misery seem to govern. It is the crisis of a collapsing world. All justifications and reasons of such demise appear useless. Utopia and our hope and future seem disappearing. We are entering the Apocalypse. A world enclosed with an exhausting environment of anguish, fear, and hopelessness. Our instinct of self-preservation in fighting death, and attempting to rebel or escape are being rendered ineffective. Our sexual transgression and wild orgiastic desires are frustrated by the explosion of a repressed libidinous force. The spread of war and terrorism are eroding the very fabric of earth and life. All of this is painted by Kanso on canvases of mural dimension. Through them, we can envision the artist at work body, soul and mind. Concentrating, he gathers his energies and thoughts delving deeply into his inner emotions, ideas and experiences which are immediately and spontaneously released and transmitted on huge canvases with all the fury of a possessed man. Intense vibrant colors blow up and explode with turbulent forms compulsively deployed by the violent movement of broad muscular brushstrokes. The immediacy of imprints and lines record the agitated expressions of the arms and whole body of the painter.

Kanso’s highly expressive personal style evokes experiences and visions that reveal the inner essence of a reality lying beyond its external aspects. A wide and unobstructed view a seriously troubled world is depicted in compositions whose imageries carry the art towards issues of human concern. In his dedication to his work and vision of painting, Kanso creates significant paintings that open up the visions of apocalyptic art. Over the course of his career, he produced an extraordinary body of work dealing with war and apocalyptic themes.

In an early 1980s series, Kanso developed and produced the Apocalypse series of paintings along with other related works dealing with biblical, literary, and mythical subject matter. In the context of this show in which all the paintings depict imagery of apocalyptic nature, the exhibition is called "Apocalypse according to Nabil Kanso" (Apocalipsis Según Nabil Kanso).

Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning to reveal or uncover. It is reflected in the Revelation made to Saint John during his exile at Patmos Island in the Aegean Sea. The Book of Revelation, also called Apocalypse, is described as apocalyptic on account of its extensive visions, symbols, and allegories. The Apocalypse expresses a divine anger that will bring to earth disasters and cataclysms, and the coming of terrible events of universal annihilation.

Evoked by the endless chaotic events and wars currently devastating the world, Kanso paints his own Apocalypse. As we tend to live in a world of anxiety, fear, and oppression, witnessing daily human brutality and suffering, it seems that we are entering the Apocalypse. The fears expressed in Kanso’s imagery and the fears of reality correspond to one another. They are universal phenomena that are very much related. The reality of what is happening in a warring zone and what is expressed in the images of the paintings heighten the relationship of the artist’s mental and physical involvement with the works and his deep-felt engagement with social and political issues. The images depicted in paintings are universal expressions of the endless variety of chaotic events, war and suffering inflicting humanity. His apocalyptic exhibition offers us a voyage to the hells of our time.

The horrors bursting out of the canvases bring us face to face with the reality of the nightmares that are occurring in our time and space. We move from one scene to another and get a close intimate look of the artist, his universe and what is happening around us. In Kanso’s enormous triptych Lebanon Vortices of Wrath , we face horrors in three grim scenes. The middle panel sharpens the focus on the central screaming female figure personifying Lebanon, being torn apart from all directions by the forces of terror. She is turned upside down and surrounded by chaotic mess of menacing figures, barbs, chains, and specters of death extending their devastation to the entire space of all three panels. On the left panel two warring figures fight each other against a massive fire-lit face of a child. The right panel draws emphasis on the monstrous figure floating horizontally across holding two infant figures. Above and behind we see pleading mothers with outstretched arms trying to protect their children from the engulfing terror and horror.

The scene of terror in Vortices of Wrath takes another dimension in Blazing Vortices: Lebanon Summer 1982   depicting a grim scene in which figures of people and horses  across the frontal plane of the entire canvas face an array of exploding and menacing  forms combining figures, abstraction, symbols and metaphors that blot out the horizon creating a realm of unrelenting intensity.

In viewing the various depicted scenes, there is a sense of following the artist’s move from one war zone to another. There are no barriers within the paintings, or, between them and the viewer. Through his paintings, Kanso reveals everything he feels and thinks regardless how painful, shocking, or stark the naked truth is. He clamors for peace and fights against war and terror with the weapons of his paintings showing what he wants with all the might of his brush allowing no embellishment to conceal or hide anything.

As we share and absorb the experiences, we become participants and witnesses of the whole scenario. We watch while our minds sway between dream and reality, between the visible and invisible, the absent and the present. The immobile and still painted images seem to revive and move continually during the act of contemplation. At this moment, dream and reality intermingle and join forces to immerse us into the deep recesses of the spectacles. The encounter has a powerful impact in which many serious, intense, disturbing, shocking, and terrible things can happen, as Artaud recalls, these could be fulminating, fatal, maddening. Or, liberating, as in Nabil Kanso’s monumental paintings whose power and vision project a compelling view of the world in the face of war, destruction, and suffering.


Erminy, Perán: "The Apocalyptic Paintings of Nabil Kanso," El Nacional, April 26, 1987, Caracas.