26 November 2017

'Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib' (2007)

[On 21 November, I posted “A Passion for Art,” an article about my parents’ art collecting.  Prominently featured in both the article and the collecting was a painting by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who was also the subject of several exhibits at the art gallery in which my parents had an interest.  Back in 2007, my mother and I went to a very special show of work by the artist, Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib, and I decided my archival report on  the show would make a good follow-up to “A Passion for Art.”  So, here is a reedited version of that pre-ROT report.]

I spent ten days in Washington, D.C., through the Thanksgiving weekend because there were several art exhibits and some shows that seemed worth visiting.  I took my usual bus (the “Kosher bus”) down on Friday morning/afternoon, 16 November 2007, and on Saturday, my mother and I drove to the nearby American University Museum to see the exhibit of Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings, part of AU’s “Art of Confrontation: AU Exploring Human Rights through Art,” a three-exhibit series at the museum  

The Botero exhibit was a display at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center of his paintings about the torture and mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, inspired by the photos that were released in April 2004. The depictions of torture are unnerving and the artist doesn’t intend to sell these works because, he says, he doesn’t want to profit from the pain of others.

Fernando Botero was born in 1932 in Medellín. Colombia, the second of three sons to David Botero, a salesman who traveled by horseback, and the former Flora Angulo, a seamstress.  David Botero died of a heart attack at the age of 40 when Fernando was four and his mother supported the family; his uncle Joaquín took a major role in his life.  Although isolated from art as presented in museums and other cultural institutes, Botero was influenced by the Baroque style of the colonial churches and the city life of Medellín, at that time a relatively small and isolated city, while growing up.  He began drawing and painting watercolors as a young child. 

He received his primary education at the Antioquia Ateneo and, thanks to a scholarship, he continued his secondary education at the Jesuit School of Bolívar.  In 1944, Joaquin enrolled him in a school for matadors for two years, but it was soon obvious that the boy was more interested in drawing and painting the bulls than in fighting them.  His earliest works, watercolors of bulls and matadors, were sold by a man who traded them for bullfight tickets.  In 1948, when he was just 16, Botero had his first illustrations published in the Sunday supplement of the El Colombiano, one of the most important newspapers in Medellín.  He used the money he made to attend high school at the Liceo de Marinilla de Antioquia.
From 1949 to 1950, the young artist worked as a set designer before moving to Bogotá in 1951.  His first one-man show was held at the Galería Leo Matiz in Bogotá, a few months after his arrival.  In 1952, Botero travelled with a group of artists to Barcelona, where he stayed briefly before moving on to Madrid, where he studied at the Academia de San Fernando and spent his days copying the Old Masters at the Prado Museum.  In 1952, he traveled to Bogotá, where he had a solo exhibit at the Matiz gallery.

In 1953, Botero moved to Paris, where he spent most of his time studying the works in the Louvre.  He lived in Florence, Italy, from 1953 to 1954, studying the works of Renaissance masters.  While Botero was enrolled in art schools for periods during these early years, he considers himself to be essentially self-taught.  In 1958, he won the ninth edition of the Salón de Artistas Colombianos.

Botero’s early artistic inspiration began with the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Orozco (1896-1974), and David Siqueros (1883-1949), as well as the Spanish masters Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Juan Gris (1887-1927). While Picasso’s Cubist breakthrough came after experimenting with the deconstruction of a guitar, Botero found his artistic insight in a mandolin. In 1956, while he was living in Mexico City, Botero painted a mandolin with an unusually tiny sound hole, allowing the instrument to suddenly take on exaggerated proportions (Still Life with Mandolin).  (Personal note: the Botero canvas my parents owned is Boy with Mandolin, ca. 1960.)  This began the artist’s iconic distortion of figures, known as “Boterismo,”  including people, animals, and objects, in his paintings and sculptures.

Botero maintains that “art should be an oasis, a place of refuge from the hardness of life,” but some of his work is blatantly political.  He and his art have even been the target of criminals and suspected terrorists: Colombian drug dealers tried unsuccessfully to kidnap him for ransom in 1994 and in 1995, a bomb was exploded beneath one of his sculptures in Medellín, killing 25 people.  In the 1990s, he started a series focusing on Colombia’s drug-related violence (which was largely centered in Medellín), including Death of Pablo Escobar, which depicts the notorious Colombian drug lord being gunned down by police.  Later, of course, the artist produced his Abu Ghraib series.  As Erica Jong, who wrote an editorial review of the exhibit for the Washington Post, averred, “Before the Abu Ghraib series I would have shrugged off this image.  Now I see all Botero's work as a record of the brutality of the haves against the have-nots.  I would be surprised if the Abu Ghraib series of images did not completely change our view of Botero as an artist.” 

In recent decades, he has lived most of the time in Paris but spends one month a year in his native city of Medellín.  The prolific artist has had more than 50 exhibits in major cities worldwide, and his work, which is seen all around the world in museums, private and corporate collections, and in public spaces, can command prices in the six and seven figures.  (Botero’s second solo show in the United States was Botero at the Gres Gallery, the gallery my parents part-owned in Washington, D.C., in 1960.  It was from this exhibit that they bought Boy with Mandolin.  It was also from this show that the Museum of Modern Art purchased Mona Lisa, Age Twelve, 1959.)  Over his career, Botero had donated more than 300 works of art, including both his own and those by 19th- and 20th-century European Masters, to cities, museums, and public spaces all around the world, such as Reclining Woman in the cultural plaza on Avenida José de Diego in San Juan across from the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico which I spotted when on a visit to the island in 2008.  In 1993, 14 of Botero's monumental, voluptuous bronze sculptures of people and animals were exhibited for about 2½ months along the grassy median strip of Park Avenue. 

Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib at the AU gallery, part of the new Katzen Arts Center on Ward Circle near my mom’s [then] apartment, from 6 November to 30 December 2007, is an exhibit of 79 paintings and drawings of the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  The series was reportedly inspired, in part, by Picasso’s 1937 Spanish Civil War-protest painting, Guernica.  (Full disclosure: Mom went to the opening of this exhibit because Botero was there.  Furthermore, as I said, we own a Botero painting.)  Botero was so incensed and angered by the photos and reports of the acts by American soldiers entrusted with the oversight of the Iraqi prisoners that he spent much of 2004 and ’05 creating the series, which is graphic, disturbing, explicit, brutal, and, unfortunately, accurate.  “I did it because I was very angry.  It was a shock for the rest of the world—for everybody—but for an artist, even more,” said Botero in an International Herald Tribune review.  “The whole world and myself were very shocked that the Americans were torturing prisoners in the same prison as the tyrant they came to remove,” the Washington Post quoted Botero as stating to the San Francisco Chronicle

For those who don’t remember the scandal, the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison 20 miles outside Baghdad became widely known when CBS News broadcast a report in April 2004 on its television news-magazine 60 Minutes, followed by a detailed story by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in May.  The war to unseat Saddam Hussein, the military dictator of Iraq who’d made the United States his principal enemy, began in March 2003 and Baghdad, the capital, fell in April.  The U.S. and its allies occupied Baghdad and took control of the prison in the city’s outskirts.  It housed both criminal detainees, including those arrested by the post-Hussein Iraqi government, and suspected Hussein and Ba’athist partisans and supporters, who were under the control of the coalition forces. 

In January, members of the U.S. unit serving as prison guards and interrogators, both military (at least one woman among them) and contracted civilians, were convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice of prisoner abuse, including the torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees.  The report and published photos, taken by the perpetrators, horrified American citizens and the international community as well.  Fernando Botero began sketching the series in 2005 after “stewing over the outrage.”.  “I started seeing these images in my mind of what was going on,” the artist explained.  He completed the series around September 2006.

While the artist didn’t try to recreate the photos, he says he didn’t paint anything that wasn’t reported in the news media.  “I didn't invent anything,” said the artist.  “If I did, then all the rest of the paintings would lose their significance.”  The figures of prisoners, guards, and dogs, while bearing all the bulbous features of the artist’s habitual style, are nonetheless frighteningly realistic.  Zadzi, a reviewer on an on-line journal (who happens to be Egyptian-born), characterized the pictures as “a strange marriage of horror and caricature.”  Post critic Kennicott made an interesting point about this aspect of Botero’s series: 

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.

The artist has previously used his roly-poly figures as objects of amusement and fun—commenting wryly on the indulgences of the upper classes in his South American society. 

Whereas Botero’s typical paintings are brightly colored, however, the palette of the Abu Ghraib pictures is subdued: flesh tones, military olive drab, a kind of bile yellow for the floor tiles, and black for the darkness and the bag hoods the prisoners wear in some of the renderings.  Bright colors are reserved for what Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott designated “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.”  Then there’s the dull, brick-red of the blood that stains the prison clothes of the abused men in many of the paintings.

These portrayals are not fun.  Botero composed the works after reading official reports of the atrocities, but he concentrated on the suffering and dignity of the victims, often naked and blindfolded or hooded, rather than their tormentors.  All of the images we saw in the photos are interpreted here, including sodomy and forced fellatio, as well as several images of guards urinating on prisoners.  There are also a number of details of bound hands and feet and one of a pair of hands, bound at the wrists and suspended over the unseen prisoner’s head from a ceiling.  Some of the scenes are very reminiscent, intentionally I believe, of crucifixion scenes and other depictions of Christian martyrdom.  In fact, Jack Rasmussen, director of the AU museum, acknowledged that Botero is “using the iconography of Christian art.”  Having noted the same parallels I did, Rasmussen continued, “In a way, you could argue that hes making martyrs out of Arab men.”

The pictures, which are all untitled (they are given numbers, like prisoners I guess) are intentionally difficult to look at, graphic and unblinking; Botero believes that Americans have been willfully blind to the actions of our surrogates and their leaders—and I’m not sure he isn’t right.  (This atrocity isn’t an issue in the current presidential primary campaign—among Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson for the Democrats and  John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, Alan Keyes, Duncan Hunter, and Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans—and though Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey, who replaced Alberto Gonzales at the end of the George W. Bush administration, was asked about waterboarding in his confirmation hearings—a depiction of which is the subject of one of Botero’s paintings—the actual use of torture wasn’t raised.  Mukasey was ultimately let off the hook—no pun intended—and confirmed even though he never answered the questions.)  In the Washington Diplomat, Rachel Ray calls the exhibit “an in-your-face experience of the media-reported atrocities.”  Just as the victims are blindfolded, the faces of the tormentors are unseen or hidden—they are anonymous, generic.  Often all we see of the American torturers is a latex-gloved hand, a boot kicking out of nowhere, or a leashed dog snarling  at a terrified prisoner.  Except that we know who they are, of course. 

Erica Jong noted that “Botero calls art ‘a permanent accusation,’” and posited that “his Abu Ghraib series seems to me more than an accusation.”  The novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer observed, “Botero’s Abu Ghraib series has been shown before, but never in Washington.  It is a moment: The people who got us into Abu Ghraib can contemplate what went on there.”  Jong added, “I dare them to look at these images and be unmoved.”  Also in the Post, Kennicott, who viewed the pictures in a New York City showing at the Marlborough Gallery (which handles Botero’s work), declared:

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. 

The artist doesn’t hold out any hope that his work will actually change anything: “Guernica was the greatest painting of the 20th century,” Botero asserted, “but it could do nothing against (Spanish dictator Francisco) Franco.”   Botero’s Abu Ghraib depictions, said Kennicott, “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,” and the artist himself proclaimed, “But this will remind people of a dark moment of this government, of what is torture.”  

Perhaps not ironically, no U.S. museum would show the Abu Ghraib works until AU’s gallery the next year so they had their U.S. première here in a commercial New York gallery.  Rasmussen revealed that he had had to be especially persuasive to get the American University administrators to present the exhibit.  In the end, the museum director affirmed, the freedom of speech and academic inquiry prevailed.  The university spokeswoman, Maralee Csellar, attested, “Because the museum is linked to the university, we are allowed to be more open and daring with our exhibits,” and then Botero added, “There was criticism, phone calls, letters and hate mail.  It was expected.” 

The AU showing, which is the first exhibit of the entire series, is the opening of a tour to several U.S. galleries, as well as abroad, following New York’s Marlborough (18 October-21 November 2006) and the University of California at Berkeley from 29 January to 25 March 2007.  Botero has announced he will donate the entire collection to UC-Berkeley.  

Jong asked in her review if Botero’s art will have any lasting effect on our attraction to violence and brutality.  “No,” she said.  “But the role of the artist in raising our consciousness and bearing witness is essential.  The artist makes us open our eyes to our own cruelty, our own passivity, our own indifference.” 

[With a man in the Oval Office who, as a presidential candidate, said he “would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding,” Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib pictures may have even more significance now than they did in 2007.  Though I doubt the depictions of the depravity perpetrated by U.S. personnel at the Baghdad prison would have any effect on Donald Trump, it might remind those around him and the lawmakers in Congress of the excesses our country and its government have already committed.  As Botero himself has said, “I hope that these paintings will serve as a testimony through time.”]

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