Artists Experiment: destroying the canvas

Artists Experiment: destroying the canvas

In "Artists Experiment" we examine a group of artists who use different processes but are ultimately working toward the same goal. In "Destroying the Canvas," Hayv Kahraman, Lucio Fontana, and Joan Miró are spotlighted as three examples of artists breaking down the stability of the canvas to help the viewer see with new eyes. 

Hayv Kahraman: puncturing the canvas

By the time she was ten Hayv Kahraman (1981- ) had already lived through air raids and bombings in Iraq before becoming a refugee in Sweden. Her work examines concepts of dislocation and expectations of womanhood. She states, “Exploding concepts of socially coded modes of thought and behavior, challenging traditional attitudes toward gender, and exploring the dynamics of nonfixity and ambivalence found in diasporic cultures are all fundamental aspects of my visual language. They are the product of my experience as an Iraqi immigrant.”  Her artwork, featuring women enduring both pain and pleasure, weaves this visual language into the subject matter. The women in Shield 2 and Concealed Weapon simultaneously take ownership of their bodies while addressing the struggles she lived through. Nada Shabout writes, “The rise of modern painting in the Arab world does not have its roots in Islamic manuscript illumination or calligraphy, nor does it reflect their continuation. Rather, it draws upon Arab concrete realities, which arouse needs among Arabs that transcend those of their ancestors, leading them to invent a new form of expression by means of an imported technique.”  Kahraman's figures both challenge and grapple with these “concrete realities” in her paintings. 

The subject of Shield 2, 2016, gazes up and into the distance. Kahraman crops the figure at the legs, the focus on the head to pelvis. The luminous quality of her skin is heightened by the raw linen background. What could easily be an ethereal figure, a stand-in for a muse or nymph from the Italian Renaissance is interrupted by a series of protrusions and cuts in the canvas. The figure’s torso and chest are mutilated by seventy-seven evenly spaced and perfectly symmetrical pieces of acoustic foam pushed through from the canvas’s back. The choice of acoustic foam relates to Martin J. Daughtry’s work on sound and violence. Daughtry writes, “Less obvious and harder to represent are the invisible wounds that sonic violence inflicts. In wartime, sound is the most expansive vector through which violence is administered: often, a single round fired, one person falls, but hundreds flinch at its explosive report.”  It is appropriate that Kahraman, who often cites her childhood in Iraq as inspiration for her work, would use acoustic foam as the weapon that inflicts pain upon her figures. The invisible wounds of her childhood are materialized and unavoidable in her oil paint doppelganger. 

Hayv Kahraman, Concealed Weapon, 2016, oil on linen and acoustic foam

Unlike the cropped figure from the previous painting, Concealed Weapon, 2016, shows the entirety of the female figure’s body. Her features are the same: pale flesh, black hair pulled back away from her face, and bright red lips. Her body and the act of removing her robe also suggests a dance-like movement, a modern-day Salome. The title draws from Kahraman’s childhood in Iraq and the Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern people as dangerous. The same series of acoustic foam pieces from Shield 2 project from the figure’s abdomen. The violence of the perforations combined with the title creates an uneasiness at odds with the sensual display. The weapon is inside the figure ready to burst out. The title also humorously contrasts with the subject matter, a woman not concealing any of her physical body. The contradictions of concealment and transparency, violence and sexuality coincide with Kahraman’s challenging of socially coded thoughts and gender norms. Kahraman’s exposure to a wide variety of cultures, Iraq to Sweden to Italy to America, results in an ability to examine themes, like gender, through a multi-cultural lens. The figures in her artwork become conduits for her to process the horrors of her past while questioning and defying cultural expectations of her present. 

Lucio Fontana: slicing the canvas

A reaction to military service. A vulgar disregard to the medium of painting. A celebration of transcending the limitation of the two-dimensional surface. These are all responses to the work of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). The Argentine-Italian artist's work has many interpretations and is ripe for analysis given that he created his most famous artwork (and an entire art movement) post World War II.

Like the other two artists in this post, many scholars link Fontana's experience with the violence and horrors of humanity to mutilating his canvases. The instability of World War II transformed the taut tension of the canvas into a battlefield of wounds and scars. The stable flat surface of the canvas is often taken for granted. He takes a material we assume to know and rips away that security. Fontana was born in Rosario de Santa Fé, Argentina, but spent his life traveling back and forth between his birth country and Italy (where his father was a citizen). At the outbreak of WWII, Fontana was in Italy. He was in Europe studying ceramics; first in Albisola, Italy, and later at the Sèvres factory, near Paris. Though he spent the remainder of the war back in Argentina, he used his time in Europe to voice his political opinions. In 1939, he joined the Milanese anti-Fascist artists' group Corrente (Current).

It wasn't until 1949 that Fontana began punching holes in the canvas (pictured at the top of this post). He was already experimenting with creating his first spatial environments (combinations of shapeless sculptures, fluorescent paintings, and black lights to be viewed in a dark room) and this act of harming the canvas further disintegrated the boundaries of two and three-dimensional art. This idea evolved over the years. He revisited the concept over and over through the 1950s and 60s. Now back in Milan, Fontana created what is now known as his Tagli (cuts) series. After painting the canvas a solid color, Fontana precisely cut the canvas either once or multiple times. The act was not about destroying the canvas, but allowing the viewer to see beyond the canvas. He gives you the freedom to acknowledge the real space behind the canvas (in this case the wall) instead of pretending that the canvas is a window to an illusionary world. He did not subscribe to the Surrealist technique of Informal painting, the popular movement that required artists to give up a degree of control and allow the pencil in hand to create a subconscious image. Fontana described his cuts a mechanical and precise, free from emotional baggage. He said, "The artist must have the courage to stop idolizing himself, to stop seeing himself as the centre of the earth and of all things." His art practice, free from the mysticism of Surrealism, relates to another popular movement that Fontana, himself, helped form. 

Fontana helped establish the movement Spatialism. Instead of responding to the horrors of World War II, artists in the Spatialism movement wanted the rapid technological and scientific advances to inform their artwork. Eager to transcend the limitations of their medium, this group of artists declared that traditional materials, such as bronze, marble, or oil paint, had to be discarded. Fontana's early spatial environments are a perfect example of leaving tradition behind and trying to make something new out of materials we already assume to know and merging it with the surrounding space. Fontana was not a master of this practice. He readily admitted that his was a work in progress. In Painting Beyond Pollock, Morgan Falconer writes, "Fontana began to create his famous punctures paintings in 1949, less as determined step towards some unrealised artistic shift, and more as a simple investigation of his own artistic capabilities."

Whether he succeeded in the mission of Spatialism is irrelevant. His practice and the legacy he left behind is more important. The German painter Gerhard Richter is one of many who sites Fontana as inspiration for their own work. 

Joan Miró: burning the canvas

Stills from Francesc Català-Roca's film Miró73. Toiles Brûlées showing Miró creating his Burnt Canvases 1973

Four phases of work. 1. Pour colors, 2. Cuts, 3. Tear and hang it, 4. Black spots. 

This begins the preparatory annotations Joan Miró (1893-1983) wrote about the above series. Further directions prompt you to carry out the steps "with rage" and "improvise with rage." Finally, you are instructed to ‘Afterwards burn them and re-work them, the fact, gesture, moral of burning (?).’ What caused this shift in the artist to destroy everything he created? Much like Fontana, Miró lived through WWII and Franco's dictatorship in Spain. Not shy about using his art as a vehicle for political expression, these paintings show the prominent artist calling out the oppressive government. 

About the effect of war, Roberto Marrone writes, "The horrifying legacy of the Holocaust, the Atom Bomb, and the Cold War produced a generation of European and Japanese artists who, in the 1950s, developed a radical new approach to painting. Almost simultaneously and often ignorant of one another and their work, theirs was an attempt to break wholly with the ideological traditions of the past and, through a variety of destructive processes, create something honest, positive and true: to build a new art that, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, would serve as a kind of alchemical act of transformative redemption, regeneration and healing." This is the time and space we find Miró. While not a vocal protestor in the auditory sense, the artist did not stay silent to the political injustices around him. As a Spanish Republican living in Franco's fascist regime, Miro used his art to bring world attention to the national problem. He did so by creating the protest piece Aidez l’Espagne (“Help Spain”) displayed in 1937 International Exposition in Paris (the same year Picasso displayed Guernica), but also by turning down commissions to represent Spain in the 1950 and 1952 Venice Biennales and continually refusing to lend his art to government-run exhibits. 

James Gibbson writes, "Miró’s notes reveal that the Burnt Canvases took inspiration from a newspaper clipping of some youthful vandalism against the Madrid Stock Exchange; he later told an interviewer that in these works he relished 'the joy of being able to say merde! to people who only see art for its commercial value, who think these paintings are worth real fortunes and go around telling everyone so.'" In essence, Miró's burnt canvases not only attack the political party he so vehemently disagreed with, but also called to task the art market and those who eagerly consumed his products without thought to the world events that inspired them. Miró displayed the burnt canvas traditionally by hanging on the gallery walls but took a departure by also suspending them from the ceiling. The result is ominous; the canvas with chard edges and gaping holes loom above you. Miró captures the feeling of the dread, gloom, and anxiety that Spanish Republicans must have felt under the rule of Franco's dictatorship. 


Hayv Kahraman, Lucio Fontana, and Joan Miró all go about altering their canvases. However, they do it in different ways; whether it be to address childhood trauma, to transcend the limitations of a medium, or to call out human rights issues. This article illustrates that sometime to convey the unimaginable or unordinary life artists must break through the canvas to something new.

Articles / Links mentioned

Hayv Kahraman quoted in Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society (New York: Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art, 2012), 120.

Nada M. Shabout, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 10. 

Martin J. Daughtry -  “Audible Inaudible” 

In many interviews, Kahraman discusses these figures as being continuations of herself.

Roberto Marrone - Rip it, burn it, tear it, cut it - the art of destruction - Christie's

Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concept - Tate 

Anthony White - No Form Can Be Spatial, the Origins of Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concept

A Slice of Lucio Fontana - Phaidon

William Jeffett - Burn, canvas, burn - Tate Etc., issue 21, Spring 2011

James Gibbons - Postage Due: Joan Miro's Alternative History - Hyperallergic 

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