Artist Inspired by War-Torn Homeland

By Catherine Fox

Nabil Kanso devotes his days to painting in a warehouse studio surrounded by commercial structures. Driven by the desire to execute all the paintings that exist - completed - in his head, he would like spend his evenings there as well, but refrains he says, "it is so scary outside there at night.

Not any scarier than it is inside his studio located off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.

On a recent visit, when he had set his canvases edge-to-edge against the wall, walking around was like taking a tour of Dante’s inferno. With agitated brushstrokes and lurid oranges, Kanso has produced a roomful of frightening images reminiscent of late Goya’s mural, all the more menacing because they are over 7 feet tall.

Men degenerate into monsters with fanglike teeth agape surround a huddled group of women and children in "Caught in the Web." Kanso explains, " it is the end of humanism, the end, the end."

"Towards the Starry Heights," is a variation on the Sisyphus myth. A group of terrified people climb a hill, but its precipitous incline dooms their attempt. A similar hopelessness pervades "the Lifeboat," as the same hollow-eyes nudes chased by black-figured ghosts cling to the sides of the empty boat.

Unlike the inferno, it is the innocent who suffer here: women and children caught in a web of violence with little hope of escape. Though kanso clothes his visions in mythological trappings, his source of inspiration is not fiction, but the tribulation of his homeland.

Although Kanso left Lebanon when he was 17 and has since become an American citizen, he has not severed his psychological connections to the country of his birth.

"It is wrenching to see the whole country destroyed," says the soft-spoken artist. "All your memories, everything is gone. To witness this is not something in the movie. I read and heard about (war) from my father, but to witness it is a totally different experience. People are killing each other over religion. Now they all have the same religion: violence" says the artist.

Kanso recalls a couple of experience from his 1982 visit. During a two-mile drive from the airport to his mother’s home, he went through a dozen checkpoints of different militia, all who examined his papers and went through his luggage. Later a stray bullet from a nearby battle grazed his wife’s headas she sat at home nursing their child.

"People are always talking about the probability of getting killed," he says. "Actually, it makes no difference whether they go our or stay at home, the probability is the same. "the children are so sad. They have been deprived of their youth. Their talk and their play are violent, and they think all the time about death."

Small wonder that cages and terrified children are recurrent images in his paintings. " I incorporate my distress into my style," says Kanso who began this series when the Lebanese Civil War worsened in 1976. He does not make preparatory sketches, he paints directly into the canvas so that he doesn’t lose the immediacy of the picture in his head. "Art is journey to the depth of the human psyche," he says.

Once Kanso began taking this particular journey, he has been unable to stop. "Distressful lines and colors have become so much part of my work, that I can’t get rid of them, even if I am not painting that kind of subject. Recently, I painted a canvas called ‘Summer,’ which I thought would be serene. And it turned out the most violent summer I’ve ever seen, as if the earth was groaning. I should have called it ‘Storm.’ "

Last year Kanso spent four months painting a mural commission of mythological, erotic scenes of nudes cavorting in pastoral settings to be installed in a home. He succeeded in keeping it rococo pink and frothy, but only with great difficulty. "I had to keep one of my other canvases nearby," he recalls. "I’d paint a beautiful girl, then (to avoid messing it up) I’d run over and work over on the other one."

Waging such battles of the will were beyond Kanso’s imagination twenty years ago, when he left Lebanon to attend school in London. The son of a well-to-do linen merchant, he expressed his romantic nature in an adventuresome spirit. He decided to attend the Polytechnic School in London and made his arrangement in secret, announcing his decision to his parents only after his application had been accepted.

Kanso began teaching himself art after visiting art classes attended by a friend. After his graduation, he moved in 1966 to New York City and enrolled at New York University. Although he was a political science major, half of his courses were art history. He also took classes at the Art Students League.

"I started to paint seriously on the side. I began to realize what painting is all about, and I realized I’d have to abandon everything else that had been important to me. –the idea of a profession like law or business and so on," he says.

"But art brought out more in me than anything else I’d ever experienced. I never dreamed I could go so deep into my soul."

In 1967, he settled into an apartment in Grammercy Park and began to paint. "I painted birds, mostly black, wild and scary," he recalls. He also painted expressionistic, quasi-mythological nudes, which when exhibited at the cooperative 76 th Street Gallery, drew promising amount of critical attention. The late Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, visited his studio in 1971, he recalls with pride.

But the artists running the 76 th Street Gallery were no businessmen. When the gallery went under in 1974, Kanso put in storage all the artwork he produced as well as most of his belongings, including furniture and rare book collection he had amassed in London. But he couldn’t retrieve his things, and they were, eventually sold off or destroyed.

Severely traumatized, he left New York and wandered from the Caribean to England and around the South. "I was a lost creature," he says. The 1976 civil war shook him out of his malaise. "After seeing the base level of savagery (in Lebanon), I realized how well off I was. I was still sad, but it was a different type of sadness."

He settled in Atlanta because he liked the city and thought it would be a "neutral place" to paint by himself. Since then Kanso has worked in virtual isolation. He has never approached Atlanta Galleries because he felt there was no market for his work here.

"A few years ago, I thought ‘I am heading against a dead wall.’ I wrote and sent slides to different museums. I got lots of complementary letters." But no sales. "I’ve only sold few of these works to long time friends. Even those who admire them decline to own them, I guess because of the subject and size."

Kanso has been dependent on money from personal funds and occasional commissions like the murals, but he always returns to the apocalyptic paintings. "I always felt if I cannot paint this, I will not be an artist. I have to paint those pictures that disturb me."

His work first came to public attention in Atlanta last month when four of his paintings were included in "The Political Show" at Nexus Gallery.

His "Endless Night" exhibited there, embodies recurrent themes of carnage, suffering and the disintegration of humanity. Though impelled by personal anguish, the picture of life he paints is not confined to Lebanon. His paintings are intended to be a universal statement about the horrors of war and the degeneration of culture.

"I know that art will not save the world, but it might reveal certain aspects," he says. "I studied political science, philosophy and art at NYU. To me it was all the same thing. I can’t detach art from life."

Fox, Catherine: "Nabil Kanso: Artist Inspired by War-Torn Homeland," The Atlanta Journal - The Atlanta Constitution, The Arts, p.1H and 5H, July 8, 1984