A Note on Botero’s Abu Ghraib

Fernando Botero, Abu Ghraib 59 (2005). Oil on canvas. 52 3/8"̉ 59". ̩ Fernando Botero. Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York, New York.

In his book, The Rebel, Albert Camus asked the question of how it is possible to live in a world in which we know that women and children are being tortured. His question was unrelated to taking sides. It was not about which military regime was better or more moral than the other. Instead Camus was asking how can we face the human condition in our everyday lives knowing that such atrocities exist.

I could not help but reflect on Camus’s question as I read the comments in the sign-in book at the Marlborough Gallery after experiencing Fernando Botero’s extraordinary suite of “Abu Ghraib” paintings. Someone took the time to write a lengthy and furious discourse condemning the exhibition as “propaganda,” asserting that what happened at the prison of Abu Ghraib outside of Baghdad under the regime of Saddam Hussein was far worse than what the American and Iraqi prison guards did to incarcerated terrorist suspects during the initial stages of the invasion in 2003. Clearly, the viewer had come to the exhibition not to see the paintings, but to take sides.

This, of course, is a familiar conundrum in an era of mediated warfare. In America, the commercial news—in its pursuit of wartime reportage—is manufactured in a way that assumes the spectator will take sides. Either you are for it or against it. There’s no time to question, no time to be skeptical. More often than not, the American news media have presented war as a kind of over-the-top sports event in which brutality and horrendous (“accidental”) crimes against civilians are somehow inevitable, if not acceptable.

“We glorify War, which for us is the only hygiene for the world,” remarked the Italian Futurist aristocrat and poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. In contrast to the dyspeptic visitor at Marlborough, however, Marinetti’s statement holds more than a tinge of irony. He wasn’t taking sides. Rather, he was admonishing the spirit of Antiquity in Italy, offering in its place the art of the machine age as the ultimate solution. While for some his solution was deemed absurd—a close cousin to existentialism—Marinetti himself was not exactly a humanist in consort with the likes of Camus, Picasso—or, for that matter, Botero.

Quite simply, this exhibition is filled with exemplary paintings—I dare say, a revisitation of an artist to his true strengths. For many Americans, this comes as a real surprise. Here, until recently, the Colombian-born Botero was viewed in more commercial terms, more as a painter of refined wit (a poetic quality shared by Marinetti), than as a painter with a dark side leaning towards existentialism. In fact, it would be unfair to categorize Botero as one or the other. He is, indeed, a painter (and sculptor) with a refined wit, but is also a painter who understands the reality of living in a political world in which ordinary people are sacrificed for causes that have little to do with them.

I read these paintings as an ensemble, as works that need to be viewed together. The emotional impact accrues as one moves between them. They are unpleasant paintings, to be sure, but they have an indelible effect. They are paintings that do not leave you easily. They go to the dark depths of the soul, yet somehow remind us that even in the darkness we can retain a semblance of nobility. Scenes of agonizingly perverse sexual engagement imposed upon two men where one sits atop another (“Abu Ghraib 55”) or is being forced to have fellatio with another blindfolded and bearded prisoner (51) are reminiscent of the torture scene in Max Beckmann’s triptych, “Departure” (1937) at the Museum of Modern Art. But in contrast to Beckmann, Botero’s “Abu Ghraib 58”—where a guard, outside of the frame, urinates on two bound and blindfolded victims—is not done in an expressionist style, but in an eccentric realist style—a signature Botero style—where the figures possess a presence in space through volume and weight, superbly proportioned and discreetly articulated as corporeal beings reduced to a purely carnal existence. The point is that these bodies are as beautifully rendered as a Jusepe de Ribera. They are not obsessive or compulsive, but carefully restrained, magnificent in their control. The use of color in terms of the fleshy tones, the contrast of light, the red splotches signifying wounds is masterful. Nothing about these paintings appears academic or overworked. They are filled with the passion and turbulence that can rock humanity into a sudden realization of its capacity for cruelty if politics go wrong to the point of oppression, where we can feel at a loss over who we are or what we are doing on this wretched earth.

The paintings are numbered, but not titled. In contrast to another famous anti-war painting, Picasso’s “Guernica” (like the Beckmann, from 1937), Botero is not using a mannerist Cubist style, nor is he focusing entirely upon a single large painting. Instead, Botero’s departure is intrinsically related to Italian Renaissance painting, which he formally studied, and paints a variety of triptychs and related figurative studies in paint and drawings in-between.

Like Picasso, the artist Botero does not take sides in these paintings. When he includes a guard, it is often through absence, such as a stream of piss, or a hand covered with a blue surgical latex glove (51) or a bent leg with a boot (60), kicking the blindfolded prisoner in the kidneys. When we do see the presence of a guard (43), which is infrequent, the uniform does not identify him. The guard remains an anonymous instrument of torture, just as the victims are objectified as anonymous bodies to be tortured. More often we see a ferocious dog (68), purposely trained to tear the naked flesh of the prisoners. In “Abu Ghraib 52,” three dogs—one leashed, two unleashed—attack a naked and blindfolded prisoner who thrashes on the floor of his prison cell. Thus, Botero is not identifying one as being more of a victim than the other. One incites pain, the other feels the pain and the humiliation, but both are degraded, pulled down under the weight of politics—a politics supported by whatever ideology—that imposes the force of degradation and the loss of identity upon people who are victimized at either end of the spectrum.

Given the importance of these works, there is a curious irony that hovers over the exhibition. Botero has made it clear that he is willing to give the entire suite of paintings to any American museum that wishes to take it. As of two days before the closing of the exhibition, not one museum had come forward with a serious interest. Given the reticence of American museums to take a clear position contrary to right-wing ideology, one can only imagine the outcry that would surround any director’s expressed interest in responding to the artist’s offer. To do so might constitute a heroic decision in contrast to the bureaucratic inevitability that continues to stifle any real progress towards the advancement of democracy.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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