I/Eye: On Photography

Pickpocket Almanack, Part II: the Abu Ghraib paintings of Fernando Botero

Posted in Uncategorized by Sheila Newbery on December 2, 2009

This is part II of a post about Pickpocket Almanack’sTaking Some Of It In’, led by filmmaker Les Blank. To learn more about this project by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, organized with Joseph Del Pesco, read Part I.

'Abu Ghraib 72', Fernando Botero

Students in Les Blank’s Taking Some Of It In attended a variety of events; I want to describe the second event we went to: a talk given by Peter Selz on the Abu Ghraib paintings of Colombian artist Fernando Botero. (You can hear that same talk at this link: http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/podcasts/art/selz_on_botero.)

By a turn of events that seems imbued with poetic, if not actual, justice, the paintings were recently given by the artist to the Berkeley Art Museum, and so they take up residence less than half a mile from the office of University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall professor John Yoo, who, while working for the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, authored the infamous torture memo. This is the memo that purported to offer legal justification (sought by the Bush administration) for criminal conduct in the interrogation of people regarded as enemy combatants — a new category of prisoner, designated under the sweeping terms of the Bush Doctrine, which could include women, children, senior citizens, even US citizens.

Botero’s paintings are larger than life-size, the figures heroic nudes, with skin tones ranging from pink to tawny to livid, pale ochre. They depict scenes of prisoner abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, events that were first brought to wide public knowledge in Seymour Hersh’s 2004 article, “Torture at Abu Ghraib”, in The New Yorker magazine, and in the snapshots taken by those who perpetrated the abuse. Botero’s work was inspired principally by Hersh’s reportage, not the circulation of the photographs, which came later.

The compositions of the paintings variously locate the viewer outside the cell (looking in on the scene) and inside the cell (looking out), so we are at times identified with the perpetrators, at other times with the victims. The victims are mostly blindfolded, and appear sometimes in groups — as confused heaps of struggling individuals, sometimes in isolation, sometimes with feet on the ground, or on hands and knees, or suspended by an ankle from a bloodied rope. The theme throughout is that of relentless physical torment and sexual humiliation.

In the lecture, Selz connected the paintings to both Colombian art and to European old masters such as Giotto, Massaccio, Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo, and emphasized that Botero’s style was very much ‘against the grain’ of Modernist tendencies (of the last century) to explore the canvas as a flat two-dimensional surface. He noted that as a young artist, Botero had gone to Florence, not Paris, to absorb the large figural masterpieces of the Quattrocento and the later Italian Renaissance.

Selz’ remarks about the young artist’s immersion in the iconography of the Renaissance made me realize that anyone familiar with depictions of the Via Crucis (‘Stations of the Cross’) will find Botero’s pictorial language essentially familiar. Though the artist is not attempting to recreate the symbology of Christ’s passion, there is a parallel in the claims the paintings make on our attention — the way their scale and iterative character arrest us as we proceed through the exhibit. But they depart from the dramatic intensification of suffering so important to representations of the passion: we don’t reach a climactic scene, as in the crucifixion, nor do we feel the relief from suffering in the redemptive figure of the resurrected Christ. In Botero’s cycle, there is no redemption, because we never leave Abu Ghraib.

There is a plain-style urgency to these paintings: the paint is laid on thinly, with an economy of brush stroke that suggests a purposefulness admitting of no distraction. There is, too, despite the evident frankness of treatment, an avoidance of the lurid for its own sake. The compositions are graphic, but they are also marked by restraint: we’re spared the sight of the evident enjoyment abusers took in elaborating their methods of humiliation, and though the victims’ physical pain is certainly not elided, Botero’s power lies less in the recreation of that pain than in conveying the cumulative weight of despair they endure.

After Selz’ lecture, I walked round the exhibit slowly and as I stood in front of one of the more recent paintings in the series, an old woman sidled up to me. She gave me an oblique, harbinger smile, drew so close that her shoulder touched my arm, and said: “Are you moved by these pictures?”

I’ve never before been asked a direct question about my reaction to a painting in a museum by a stranger!

“Yes,” I replied. “Very much so. Are you?”

“Not at all,” she said immediately. “I don’t feel a thing.”

I was taken aback by this, but I suppose nowadays we’re accustomed to sensational, cinematic expansiveness in depictions of violence, so the mute eloquence of Botero’s outrage, his anguished display of empathy, may disappoint American tastes.

I thought for a few minutes and then said, “It might help to focus on the victims’ mouths. We may not be able to see their eyes, but if you look at their mouths, you see that every one of them is twisted in despair. Perhaps you can try looking at that.”

I felt this was inadequate; there was a  pause,  and then the woman said:

“That sounds like a good trick. I think I’ll try it.”

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