Botero Restores the Dignity of Prisoners at Abu Ghraib
A selection of Fernando Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” paintings, which were shown in Europe last year, can now be seen through Saturday at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan. They may not be masterpieces, but that may not matter. They are among Mr. Botero’s best work, and in an art world where responses to the Iraq war have been scarce — literal or obscure — they stand out.
That it is moving to encounter these large, unnerving images and austere compositions on American soil is reflected in the gallery’s sign-in book: in place of the usual signatures, there are effusively grateful comments in several languages.
Naked, bound, blindfolded, bleeding, alone or in groups, the prisoners in Mr. Botero’s paintings are enduring torment and humiliation. These now familiar scenes are based on the images and written accounts that emerged when pictures of abuse by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light in 2004. The notorious naked human pyramid is here, as are prisoners in women’s underwear, forced into sexual postures, threatened by guard dogs or tied to bars. Sometimes the boot or fist of a tormentor juts in.
These paintings do something that the harrowing photographs taken at Abu Ghraib do not. They restore the prisoners’ dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony or the injustice of their situation. Mr. Botero does this, as painters always have, through manipulations of scale, color and form. He has also made surprisingly astute adjustments to his own daffy style.
The Abu Ghraib prisoners are not his usual pneumatic inflatables. They are immense, but monumental; muscular and solid. It is as if Mr. Botero has turned for inspiration from Henri Rousseau and peasant art to the figures of the Laocoön and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. His prisoners are shown in a kind of majestic isolation in precise volumes of space. Defined by planes of gray, green and terra cotta, and by cagelike iron grids, these spaces evoke the Spanish Inquisition, images of Christian martyrs and the calm geometry of early Renaissance paintings.
Themes of power and excess are not entirely new to Mr. Botero’s seemingly sunny art. He has previously evoked military dictators and the violence of the Colombian drug wars. His evocations of obesity itself imply a sinister cluelessness.
In the show’s catalog the critic David Ebony suggests that these works are in the tradition of Picasso’s “Guernica,” Philip Guston’s images of Richard M. Nixon, and Leon Golub’s towering “Mercenaries” series. Like them, the new Boteros hold art and politics in balance, creating the needed buffer to help us face the unbearable and maintain some hope. They may also convey the gratuitous cruelty of these events to future generations. That is good enough.