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Art that accuses

Injustices in his homeland and Abu Ghraib push Colombian painter Fernando Botero to act -- and infuse his recognizable style with unfamiliar pain.

July 17, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Barranquilla, Colombia — As school field trips go, it wasn't exactly a romp in the park. "What's this man missing?" a museum guide asked the students, pausing before a painting of a beggar amputee. "His leg!" several adolescent voices shouted at once.

All along the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in this sweltering Caribbean port city were other shocking images: of car bombings, kidnappings and mass executions, of roly-poly men and women screaming, crying, vomiting, bleeding to death, begging for their lives and being picked apart by buzzards.

These aren't the sorts of scenes most people associate with Fernando Botero. For decades, the 73-year-old Colombian painter and sculptor has been best known for his seemingly innocuous images of plump priests, chunky children and still lifes of gargantuan fruits and flowers.

But this perception of Botero's work was always overly simplistic and incomplete. Encoded, or perhaps hidden in plain sight, in many of his paintings are multilayered cultural symbols, covert allusions to current events and winking art-historical references to works by Velazquez, Vermeer and other Old Masters. Some of his most enigmatic images -- birds perched in lollipop trees, faces anxiously peering out of windows, a pile of dead bishops resting peacefully -- hint at darker forces roiling beneath the colorful, pleasing surfaces.

Yet even these works couldn't have foreshadowed the searing power of the series that Botero began producing in the late 1990s. Outraged and saddened by the four decades of internecine violence that have ravaged his native Colombia, Botero started making dozens of oil paintings and drawings of gruesome killings and kidnappings, harrowing torture scenes, funeral processions and other agonizing subjects.

Then last year, after reading a magazine account of the atrocities committed against Iraqi war prisoners by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib detention facility just west of Baghdad, an enraged Botero decided to make another cycle of paintings and drawings in a similar vein. The resulting images are as graphic as they are grim. In one painting, a U.S. soldier beats a blindfolded Iraqi prisoner with a stick. In another a guard dog attacks a blood-splattered prisoner lying on the ground.

In their brutal candor, both series are crafted to induce deep outrage, revulsion and shame. They succeed, and together they add a sobering new dimension to Botero's prolific output. "There have been some paintings that have a certain satiric touch, above all when I'm painting dictators, presidents, presidential families, etc., there has been a satiric touch," Botero said in a phone interview from his sculpture studio in Pietrasanta, Italy. "But clearly there wasn't the violence or the presentation that there is in the new pictures."

Both series have generated worldwide attention. The Colombia-themed paintings, after first being exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, have been shown at museums across Colombia, including a stop in Barranquilla this past spring. Maria Eugenia Castro, director of the Museo de Arte Moderno here, said the exhibition had drawn thousands of visitors from the city and surrounding towns and villages, including large numbers of schoolchildren.

An exhibition of the Abu Ghraib works, about 16 oil paintings and 30 drawings, opened June 16 at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. After four months there it will travel to the Wurth Museum in Germany, then to the Pinacoteca in Athens. Botero says a museum in Washington, D.C., also has expressed interest in showing the Abu Ghraib works.

Arguably the most widely recognized living artist in Latin America, Botero also is among the most beloved. Photographic reproductions and hand-painted copies (a nicer word than "forgeries") of his works are sold in commercial art galleries and souvenir emporiums throughout Central and South America.

His Rubenesque humans, rotund landscapes and voluptuous vases, musical instruments and other inanimate objects are so identifiable as to be practically a trademark. To those familiar only with the whimsical, sensuous side of his art, Botero's new works may seem as startling as if Norman Rockwell late in his career had begun painting My Lai massacre scenes.

Emotions take shape

Botero says the idea of doing an Abu Ghraib series came to him last October while flying to his Paris home from Colombia. Though he'd been following media accounts of the growing scandal at the military prison, a magazine article he was reading on the plane crystallized his feelings.

"I asked the stewardess to give me some paper," he recalled, "and then I started doing a lot of images in the plane when I was reading this thing. And when I got to Paris I started immediately to kind of do these [images] in drawings, constructed drawings, and then paintings, and this and that. It was like something that came out of my heart or my mind, or something that came because I was really upset and angry."

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