Correction to This Article
An Oct. 14 Style article about artist Fernando Botero's images reflecting on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal misspelled the name of journalist Seymour M. Hersh.

A Conflict of Images

(Copyright Fernando Botero -- Marlborough Gallery, New York)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006


Back in 1993, on Park Avenue, there was a public exhibition of Fernando Botero's big, curvy bronze sculptures, monumental human and animal figures that sat fat and happy on the green median of one of the world's priciest streets. Botero's trademark chubbies aren't exactly beloved by the high art crowd -- at least that part of it committed to conceptual and abstract work. But they are a golden brand everywhere else in the world -- lucrative, popular, collectible. Even the name Botero is shorthand for one of his paintings or one of his trademark pudgy figures, and if someone whispers "Botero-esque" as you waddle by, you can be sure that it's time to start losing a few.

Park Avenue was the perfect place for them, a canyon of concrete where they seemed to mock (or celebrate) the porcine habits of the upper class. After New York, the Boteros went on to Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Beverly Hills and (in 1996) Washington. But American museums haven't exactly been clamoring for first rights to his current show, which opens at the commercial Marlborough Gallery in New York on Tuesday.

Shocked and angered by news of Abu Ghraib, Botero was inspired to put his familiar figures through the rigors and humiliations of the abuse that American soldiers perpetrated on Iraqi inmates at the notorious prison. The result was some 80 paintings, drawings and watercolors that show his rounded figures with hoods on, shackled, bound at the wrists, forced into human piles, bleeding, screaming and vomiting. They are fat, but they're not happy.

It is a remarkable show, and a disturbing one. Few artists in this country have focused so obsessively on the events at Abu Ghraib, and even fewer have done it in a figurative, representational style. And no artist with a style so recognizable as Botero's has dared to infuse his cash-cow calling card with such nakedly political sentiment. You will probably never see then-Spec. Lynndie England practicing her sick sadomasochism in a Thomas Kinkade cottage or one of William Wegman's dogs trussed up for some waterboarding.

Botero, 74, a trim man with thin silver hair, says that he first learned of Abu Ghraib from Seymour Hirsch's explosive 2004 article in the New Yorker. Then came newspaper and television reports, and a barrage of photographs. He spent four or five months stewing over the outrage, and then, on an airplane returning to his home in Paris, he started sketching. About 45 of his Abu Ghraib works, which he has tried without success to exhibit in a U.S. museum, will go on display for the first time in this country at the New York gallery, one of his primary American outlets. It is a gallery more given to such artists as Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor. Chihuly's exhibition of utterly vapid glass color blobs is moving out just as the Boteros move in (the Botero show runs through Nov. 18).

"We've never done an exhibition quite like this," says Janice Gardner Cecil, one of the Marlborough's directors. In the back of the gallery, behind the public space where hoi polloi wander, are large sliding racks of paintings for sale, and there one finds more familiar Botero material. Here, paintings such as "After Goya" (2005), which shows a blank-faced, full-figured, somewhat squat woman in an elegant dress and elaborate hat, are saturated in color, often tropical hues inspired by the artist's native Colombia.

By contrast, the Abu Ghraib paintings stick to a restricted palette. Flesh tones are sunburned or sickly green, and the backgrounds are dark military greens, ochre tiles and a black void seen through prison bars. Many of the works were done in charcoal or pencil, with a splash of rust color soaking through, to indicate blood. The rare bright spots in the paintings come from the paraphernalia of sadism: a blue latex glove worn by an American captor, strangely festive blindfolds, or bright-red women's underwear, used to demean and embarrass the men.

Look back through Botero's career, and these rare touches of color connect the Abu Ghraib art to the folk-inspired figures he has focused on for decades. A painting of a transvestite, from 2000, shows a hint of the same red brassiere seen in the Abu Ghraib works, and the lips of his torture victims are, for some reason, glossed up in cherry just like those of his female impersonator. And there's the head-scratcher: Is Botero just playing Abu Ghraib dress-up with his Botero People?

And isn't there something opportunistic, or at least insensitive, in that? Throughout the trauma of public exposure that made Abu Ghraib synonymous with American hypocrisy around the world, the government (and often newspapers) argued that it is humiliating to the victims to spread these images. Is it a further humiliation to Botero-ize them?

It isn't clear whether Botero sees his Boteros quite like we do, as slightly ridiculous figures, a particular species with all the grotesquerie but little of the visual sting of caricatures such as the decadent old men and prostitutes of George Grosz. He seems to see the world through the medium of his tubbies, and they are essentially neutral objects, which can be fit to multiple purposes, including his efforts, in this show, to document his feelings about torture.

"I didn't invent anything," he says, explaining that he painted directly from, and with fidelity to, descriptions he read in official reports about the outrages. (Botero insists that he didn't work from photographs.) "If I did, then all the rest of the paintings would lose their significance."

So he thinks of himself as a chronicler, albeit in paint, on canvas, with a glossy art sheen. This isn't the first time that his career has undergone what he calls "a parenthesis," a dark chapter devoted to disturbing political or social events. In the late 1990s, he painted a series of works inspired by the bloody drug-cartel wars of Colombia, a country he can only visit under extremely elaborate security arrangements because his fame makes him a target. Those paintings also hewed to the Botero style, including a corpulent Pablo Escobar, seen above the rooftops, a la Chagall, going down in a hail of bullets. He donated his drug-war paintings to museums in Bogota and Medellin, and he will donate the Abu Ghraib paintings as well.

"It is immoral to try to make money out of the suffering of people," he says. He hopes that an American museum will take them for its permanent collection; a European museum will also do.

These paintings leave you with the sense that two worlds have collided with very odd results. The men at Abu Ghraib may not have been skeletal, but they weren't pleasantly plump, a condition that suggests (in artistic terms) bourgeois prosperity or complacency. Indeed, being fat, in our image-conscious society, is almost the same as being guilty, and yet the guilt, at Abu Ghraib, rests squarely with the Americans -- who are never explicitly represented as such; no identifying flags or insignia appear in any of these works. The perpetrators are often faceless or are represented only by a hand or a boot coming in from the margin of the painting.

And although Botero spares no effort to show degradation -- even sodomy is explicitly represented -- he never quite gets facial anguish right. The fat on a happy Botero works to neutralize expression into something round and blank, like a baby's idiotic goo-goo face; but screaming, shrieking, crying Boteros have awkward, cartoon mouths with widely separated teeth, such as a child might draw. The strongest images are ones in which the subject has passed through anguish into resignation, which strongly suggests the visual tradition of Christian martyrdom.

Authentic primitivism, with its raw edges and volatility, has largely been banished from Botero's big, happy work, which often looks as if it's minted in a factory. In the Abu Ghraib works, however, Botero is more closely in communion with folk-art traditions. He mentions Goya, the chronicler of French atrocities in Spain, and there's a resemblance. But his Abu Ghraib series feels more like a catalogue of dark memories, a compendium of outrages captured in a long-established people's vernacular, as a hedge against obfuscation and oblivion. These illustrations form a kind of history book, not one written by the victors but one sketched and colored by the meek of the earth, hidden away until the tables are turned and the truth can come out.

"Art is a permanent accusation," he says.

Abu Ghraib, an exhibition by Fernando Botero at New York's Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th St.,opens Tuesday and runs through Nov. 18. The gallery is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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