Thursday, November 16, 2006

Abu Ghraib paintings about to end their short U.S. run, but available as a book

Fernando Botero with one of his "Abu Ghraib" paintings. Their first United States show, at the Marlborough Gallery, ends on Saturday. Gary Hershorn/Reuters

"Botero's paintings of Abu Ghraib shunned in U.S" is how Reuters headlined their story about the opening of an exhibit of Abu Ghraib paintings by 74-year-old Fernando Botero at New York's Marlborough Gallery last month.
Colombian artist Fernando Botero's paintings and sculptures grace museums and public spaces around the world, but he suddenly had trouble exhibiting his work in America when the topic was Abu Ghraib.

A series of paintings depicting U.S. military abuse of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison was rejected by all the U.S. museums to which it was offered before it found a home at the Marlborough Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, where it opened [October 18] and will remain on display until November 18.

"Here there is total freedom of expression. That's why it was so alarming that the museums didn't want to show these works," Botero told Reuters in an interview at the gallery on Tuesday, surrounded by paintings of stripped and bound prisoners being abused by guards with dogs.

The paintings are derived from texts describing the events, Botero said, and do not mimic the famous photos.
Botero told reporter Daniel Trotta that he was so shocked by Abu Ghraib that he set everything else aside after Seymour Hersh broke the story in 2004 and devoted 14 months to creating 42 drawings and 38 large oil paintings about the torture of the prisoners. The works were exhibited at several European museums, but found no takers among U.S. museums. Botero has since returned to painting what Trotta called "his jolly, oversized crowd-pleasers."
"They are never fat. They are volumetric," Botero said, correcting what he considered a reporter's oversimplification of his characters.
Botero, well known for his uniquely rotund depictions of the human figure in painting and sculpture, is enormously popular with the general public around the world, but usually doesn't get much respect from art critics. This exhibit is an exception, however.

Roberta Smith gives the show a respectful review in the NYT, asserting "Botero restores the dignity of prisoners at Abu Ghraib." It's probably significant, however, that she waited until three days before the exhibit closed, and more than a week after the midterm elections, to write about it.

In The Nation, critic Arthur C. Danto titles his review "The Body in Pain" and offers a thoughtful discussion of how the paintings have a power to move us in ways that the unmediated Abu Ghraib photographs do not.
As it turns out, his images of torture, now on view at the Marlborough Gallery in midtown Manhattan and compiled in the book Botero: Abu Ghraib, are masterpieces of what I have called disturbatory art--art whose point and purpose is to make vivid and objective our most frightening subjective thoughts. Botero's astonishing works make us realize this: We knew that Abu Ghraib's prisoners were suffering, but we did not feel that suffering as ours. When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.

Botero's images, by contrast, establish a visceral sense of identification with the victims, whose suffering we are compelled to internalize and make vicariously our own. As Botero once remarked: "A painter can do things a photographer can't do, because a painter can make the invisible visible." What is invisible is the felt anguish of humiliation, and of pain. Photographs can only show what is visible; what Susan Sontag memorably called the "pain of others" lies outside their reach. But it can be conveyed in painting, as Botero's Abu Ghraib series reminds us, for the limits of photography are not the limits of art. The mystery of painting, almost forgotten since the Counter-Reformation, lies in its power to generate a kind of illusion that has less to do with pictorial perception than it does with feeling.
The feelings expressed by Botero put him squarely in a line that stretches back at least as far as Goya. He has said that he will not sell the works, because he does not want to profit from the suffering, but that he would like to donate the complete collection to a museum in the U.S. or Europe. So far no one has taken him up on the offer. The show closes Saturday, but if you can't get to New York in time, the book Botero: Abu Ghraib is available on Amazon.

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