The popular work of Latin America’s most celebrated living artist, Fernando Botero, is instantly recognizable. His smooth, corpulent forms in paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints have been exhibited around the world. Two of Botero’s monumental bronze nudes decorate the entrance hall of the Time-Warner Center in New York City, and a multi-ton cat of his prowls outside an apartment building further uptown. Several major museums have purchased his works for their permanent collections, and his paintings of circus life were displayed in Venice and in Zurich during summer. Critics have praised Botero’s art, which warmly and whimsically depicts the life of peasants and aristocrats, clowns, dancers in motion, families and children at play.
Botero, 78, was not widely known as a political artist. So the art world was stunned in 2005, when he produced a series of 80 paintings, sketches and finished drawings based on the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Photographs of the mistreatment by some U.S. soldiers stationed at the prison had flooded the media just months before with images so shocking and sexually degrading that they have since become modern icons of abuse.
The artist found himself obsessed by the episode after reading an article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker in May 2004. He continued to follow the news and became incensed, he said, because he had expected better of the United States. “These works are a result of the indignation that the violations in Iraq produced in me and the rest of the world,” Botero told Juan Forero of The New York Times in 2005.
It took Botero 14 months to complete his series of works on paper in graphite and charcoal and on canvas in oil. Some of the images directly refer to the photographs from Abu Ghraib. They show naked, blindfolded, hooded and handcuffed prisoners, bruised and bleeding, being kicked or piled up, some wearing women’s underwear. In many of Botero’s paintings, however, the figures are life-size, a scale that magnifies both their suffering and their humanity. The artist also focuses attention on the prisoners themselves, rather than on those who inflict the harm, and so presents them as artistic subjects, an honor once reserved for deities, royals and historical or literary personages.
Botero based other images on a passage in Hersh’s article that listed abuses found by the U.S. military after an investigation of the prison. That list included sodomy and the use of military dogs to threaten the prisoners. Botero depicts both. He also illustrates waterboarding, or simulated drowning, a practice not shown in photos or listed in the investigation findings but that lies at the heart of the controversy over the use of torture in Iraq.
A traveling exhibition of Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” series was shown widely in Europe between 2005 and 2006. In the United States, by contrast, the works appeared only briefly, at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in November 2006. The works have still not been shown at any major American museums, though some universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, and American University, in Washington, D.C., have exhibited them.
In her review of the Marlborough exhibition, Roberta Smith, an art critic for The New York Times, judged the images to be “among Mr. Botero’s best work” and added, “In an art world where responses to the Iraq war have been scarce—literal or obscure—they stand out.”
Indeed, individual artists, not just museums, have steered clear of the explosive subject. But Botero, born in Medellín, Colombia, and educated by the Jesuits, is steeped in Christian iconography, which often depicts the violent sufferings of the saints by arrows, flaying, crucifixion, beheading, burning at the stake and the like. As a contemporary artist, he follows Francisco Goya, who drew torture scenes and painted an execution by firing squad (‘The Third of May”), and Max Beckman, George Grosz and Otto Dix, whose images of the pervasive brutality and tortures of the Nazi period still rivet our attention.
Botero hopes that his images might affect the public as Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” has. Picasso’s mural, based on the German bombing of a Basque town in 1937, not only publicized the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, but also made a visual antiwar statement. In Botero’s own memorable phrase, “Art is a permanent accusation.”
The “Abu Ghraib” series was preceded by Botero’s only other venture into highly charged, political subject matter. Heartsick about the violent drug wars in his native country, the artist produced “Violence in Colombia,” 67 paintings of kidnappings, massacres, priest-led funeral processions and death-squad fighters. He even painted “The Death of Pablo Escobar,” an image of a notorious drug lord. The war had stricken Botero’s own family. One son, who served as Colombia’s defense minister, was jailed for accepting drug money on behalf of President Ernesto Samper. Botero’s family became a target of kidnappers; the artist still travels with bodyguards when in Colombia. He later donated the series on violence to the National Museum of Colombia, saying it was improper to earn money for the work.
Why had Botero painted such subjects? He said he wanted people to “remember this horrible moment in our history.” The painter called his work a “testimonial to a…time of insanity.” That sentiment may also explain Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” series, much of which he has donated to the University of California, Berkeley.
Botero’s pictures have been published in a book, Abu Ghraib, by Botero (available online). On YouTube one can watch the video made at Berkeley in January 2007, when Richard Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate (1995-97) interviewed Botero for the opening of the exhibition. The artist describes what it was like to paint the suffering subjects. He said the figures in the paintings “immediately became mythic and generalized, not particular,” and that the series shows “what man is capable of.”
Serious works always have critics. Why didn’t Botero paint the acts of terrorism committed against innocent Americans on Sept. 11, 2001? Critics have asked that question, dubbing Botero’s outrage “empty.” Botero answered: “You expect it in Africa, Latin America, Asia. But the country that represents democracy and human rights…the idea of compassion that conveys America—it [the abuse] was a shock because it was unexpected.”
Fernando Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” series raises important issues about the role of art not merely to inform or inspire, but also to enrage. It asks viewers to distinguish between art (including photography) and documentary snapshots and to reflect on the differences between the two. How is it that Botero, who does not live in the United States, produced a major commentary on Abu Ghraib, while U.S. artists have remained largely silent? Perhaps distance, especially concerning a national scandal in wartime, helps an artist to see more clearly. It also lessens the political risks, though that did not stop Botero in Colombia.
“I know I’m not going to change anything; art does not have that power,” Botero told the audience at Berkeley. “The power of art is to help people remember something; I hope that will happen with my work.”