Fernando Botero's 'Abu Ghraib' Paintings

Peter Selz

October 15, 2007

Event Summary 

Fernando Botero’s Dynamic Path to Berkeley 
By Sarah Moody

“Museums are afraid to show works that reveal the truth.” So claimed Professor Peter Selz in a lecture inspired by the exhibition of Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” series organized by the Center for Latin American Studies last spring. The University of California , Berkeley was the first public institution in the United States to show the powerful series. The approximately 100 drawings and oil paintings resulted from Botero’s shock and rage at what had happened at that Iraqi prison. As part of a series of talks related to the exhibit, Selz examined Botero’s development as an artist in relation to topics of violence and considered the importance of the paintings today.

Professor Selz began with a discussion of Botero’s artistic development. After winning second prize in the Salón de Artistas Colombianos in 1952, Botero used his winnings to travel to Europe to study the Old Masters. He began in Spain , copying the work of El Greco, Velázquez and Goya . In Florence , he studied the location of generously-proportioned, verisimilar bodies in real spaces, focusing especially on the work of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca and the sensuality of Rubens. Botero then visited the Sistine ceiling in Rome before traveling to Mexico and turning to the famous muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, whose paintings of strong, powerful human figures were important to Botero’s own approach.

Though he often recreated his predecessors’ paintings, Botero did not always approach the originals reverentially. According to Selz, Botero considered the Mona Lisa more a part of pop culture than a work of art, as can be seen in “Mona Lisa, Age 12,” painted in 1959. In the Colombian painter’s rendition of the famous work, he gives the subject a mischievous, almost deranged expression in place of the original’s calm smile. Botero’s compulsion to quote became a recurring theme throughout his career; to cite only a few examples, he took on the oft-portrayed figure of Christ in “Ecce Homo” of 1967, painted an obese pear in 1976 in response to René Magritte’s “The Listening Room” and reinvented Titian’s “The Rape of Europa” in 1995, placing the subjects in a space that resembles a bullring. The clear note that sounded across these echoes of others’ work, giving them coherence, was Botero’s constant interest in rounded, solid, voluminous form.

By the turn of the millennium, Botero was known worldwide for his visual vocabulary based on sensual human shapes. Focusing on what Botero calls “poetic transformation,” Selz explained that the painter is interested in “the truth and in the authenticity of the painting as a painting, which is very different from verisimilitude.” He often works with universal themes, interpreted through particular, individual subject matter, such as a city street in Latin America in “The Street” of 2000. Botero “delights in the human form and paints with great sensuality.”

In 1999 Botero began to focus on political themes and to depict violence in his paintings, seeing a moral necessity, according to Selz, in leaving testimony to the madness of war and violence. His painting “Massacre in Colombia of 1999” interprets a historical event and forefronts the individual pain and horror of violent death in a color scheme dominated by his customary bright pastels. Another painting from the same series, “The Earthquake,” portrays the crumbling of colonial architecture into rubble, in a world thrown off balance and ravaged by the unexpected. It is similar to “Massacre” with its cheerful palette in discord with the somber subject matter. Botero’s images of pain, which hadn’t previously been a frequent topic of his work, draw on a history of depictions of violence that includes Goya’s Disasters of War paintings, the works of German artists such as Otto Dix during the interwar period and Picasso’s “Guernica.”

Selz next turned to more contemporary artists’ treatment of violence, noting that in the last year the amount of art being produced on themes of violence has grown enormously. Photographic reenactments of the Abu Ghraib pictures by Clinton Fein, a South Africa-native and resident of San Francisco , approach the same object with alternative media. Leon Golub painted interrogation scenes strikingly similar to Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” paintings, except for the former’s inclusion of interrogators, which Botero’s paintings generally excise. Another American painter who has recently tackled the issue of torture is William Wiley, known for his disruptive, confrontational sense of humor that, for Selz, “simultaneously represents and converts reality.” With his strong sense of deconstruction and incoherence, Wiley’s work follows the modernist attitude that, “in order to present reality, we must change the mode of presentation.” Botero participates in this modernist approach only in that his work disrupts viewers’ expectations, but it in fact partakes more directly of older artistic traditions, such as those of Italy ’s Renaissance. This extensive familiarity with artistic tradition is evident in the “Abu Ghraib” series, in which crucifixion is a strong theme, alongside noteworthy formal elements stemming from the Renaissance, such as the triptych, a careful use of perspective and the strong, structuring device of prison bars as a background.

Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews during the series’ first exhibition in the United States, at the Marlborough Gallery in New York , no American museums initially accepted the offer to host the exhibit. Selz attributed this reluctance to the corporate funding of many museums, which creates apprehension toward controversial topics. This past summer Botero decided to donate the series, which was never intended for sale, to UC Berkeley, in part to ensure its continued availability to the public. While the series is currently traveling, if all goes well, it should return to a permanent home by the Bay.

Sarah Moody is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Fernando Botero’s ‘Abu Ghraib’ Paintings 
By Ilona Aleksandrova

All painters corrupt. No matter what the theme, the subject of the painter’s work is deformed in the process of transcribing its image. This is how Peter Selz opened his lecture on the style of famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero and the artist’s progression toward overtly “political” work. Botero, who is best-known for the voluptuous forms of the women he portrays in his work — which borrows freely from the works of famous painters that came before him — peoples his paintings with figures that can be described as “fat.” As Selz pointed out, however, that perception begs the question: fat to whom? Thus, Botero acknowledges artistic “corruption” via his signature “fat” figures, which satirize the process of transcribing an image. In a sense, Botero embraces “corruption.”

Botero grew up in Medellín , Colombia where he was influenced by the Baroque architecture and paintings of the churches. The Baroque style leaned toward the excessive, a fact that did not escape Botero and, indeed, shaped his artistic taste. He won second prize in the Salón Annual de Artistas Colombianos in 1952 and used the prize money to travel to Europe to study the Old Masters. He copied Velásquez and Goya in Madrid , Masaccio and Piero della Francesca in Florence and Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in Rome.

In Paris, recounted Selz, the artist painted a copy of the “Mona Lisa” as she would have been at age twelve. In his rendition, Botero focused on her eyes, which he made enormous, and not the famous smile. According to Botero, “Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is so popular that it is no longer a work of art; for me it is like a movie or a football player.” By spotlighting the eyes, he showed that the “Mona Lisa“ — a painting that has become somewhat cliché through its own fame — can be seen in different ways, that she is more than just a smile.

After his stay in Europe , Botero made his way to Mexico where he studied the art of muralist Diego Rivera, whose work, full of strong and solid figures, also influenced him. Selz maintained that Latin America , being less exposed to travel than Europe, presented Botero with the opportunity to engage in what he really wanted: poetic transformations. The artist could thus explore the “truth in painting.”

“He is interested in the truth, in the authenticity of the painting as a painting, which is very different from verisimilitude,” Selz commented. “Since his work is well-understood in countries far removed from his sensibility, [he] must be painting something local and provincial — which goes far beyond the local and provincial.”

Botero began painting political works in 2000, when he produced pieces about the 1999 massacre in Colombia to give testimony to the atrocities and the suffering there. Botero, is “by no means a non-committal artist,” maintained Selz. His inspiration as to form and style may come from the European Renaissance and Baroque traditions, but his work is rooted in the events of the contemporary world.

Botero is, of course, hardly the first artist to take up themes of political violence in his paintings. Selz pointed to Goya, who depicted the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and Otto Dix, whose subject was Germany after World War I. Dix’s disturbing work “Dermatologist,” for example, depicts a man with an epidemic syringe, which Selz noted is a “tool of penetration.” Similarly, more contemporary artists have tackled political violence in works relating to the Vietnam War and Gulf War I.

Since art can take a political form, can send a political message, it can also be perceived as a threat to authority. In the Chambers of the UN General Assembly in New York hangs a full-size reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s “ Guernica ,” an abstract painting of the bombing and destruction of that Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. “When Secretary of State [Colin] Powell gave his speech in which he lied about weapons of mass destruction, ‘ Guernica ’ was veiled so nobody could see it,” observed Selz. “The Americans who draped it had an idea of the power of such a painting.”

Botero’s movement in the direction of overtly political art reached its culmination when he began to create work responding to Seymour Hersh’s article exposing the torture committed by members of the American armed forces in Abu Ghraib, a U.S.-controlled Iraqi prison.

Botero’s body of work dealing with Abu Ghraib — totaling 51 paintings and 50 drawings — was shown in January 2007 at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library to wide acclaim. Over the summer, Botero decided to donate the collection to the university.

Toward the end of his talk, Selz quoted art critic Roger Fry’s observation that, “If all art history were based on a few apples, it would be boring.” Thus, no matter what the subject, it is the form the object takes that matters. It is this idea, according to Selz, that Botero took into account when he chose to paint the Abu Ghraib prisoners as corpulent, masculine men. “These prisoners, of course, were emaciated; they were very, very thin by being in prison so long, but Botero…had to show the flesh in these paintings,” explained Selz. The abundant flesh of Botero’s figures serves to highlight the pain of the abuses, the depth of their damage.

Botero, even in his “political” art, has not abandoned the technique he acquired after long study of the Old Masters. He “has a feeling for drawing and painting which is quite extraordinary,” Selz observed, and one can see, in the Abu Ghraib works, the artist employing his knowledge of Renaissance subjects such as the Crucifixion and the triptych, for instance.

“Botero goes back to old tradition,” noted Selz. “He does not fit into the modernist vein… However, his work within the tradition is so powerful that the whole disruption against the establishment is also an essential part of modernist art and modernist literature. In that sense, Botero indeed is a modernist.”

The “Abu Ghraib” series has received widespread attention, but now the issue of self-censorship in museums as a result of corporate funding, for instance, may determine who chooses to exhibit Botero’s work or the political art of the future. In the meantime, the awareness Botero’s work has raised underlines once more his enormous range and breadth. Ironically and rather skillfully, Botero has made use of his “artistic corruption” to expose real life political corruption. That certainly takes talent.

Peter Selz is Professor Emeritus in UC Berkeley’s History of Art Department and the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum . On October 15, 2007, he spoke on a panel titled "Fernando Botero’s ‘Abu Ghraib’ Paintings” in the Sproul Room of International House.

Ilona Aleksandrova is an undergraduate student in the Departments of Political Science and Mass Communications.