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Art that accuses

Times Staff Writer

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sight, in many of his paintings are multilayered cultural symbols, covert allusions to current events and winking art-historical references to works by Velazquez, Vermeer and other Old Masters.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.

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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.

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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

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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.”

Botero is no knee-jerk America basher. He splits his time among homes in Paris, New York and Italy and has a son who lives in Miami. His indignation over Abu Ghraib as well as abuses at the U.S.-operated prison camp for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, Cuba, springs from his conviction that the United States should be setting an example in defending basic human rights.

“I believe that [Abu Ghraib] ... has destroyed a part of the marvelous image that the United States had throughout many years,” he said. “For this, I made these works.

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“The war in Iraq was unjustified. All the world was in agreement with the United States attacking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But many people comprehend that Iraq isn’t justified. But the torture has been especially badly regarded by the world. The United States has lost ground from the point of view of goodwill and enormous moral prestige.”

Throughout much of his career, Botero has contended that art (or at least Western art) serves primarily aesthetic ends. “No one knows of a sad or dramatic Impressionist painting.”

But as he has gotten older, he has become more active in using his art and reputation to draw attention to issues of violence and political conflict. He has donated money and works from his private art collection to museums in Bogota and his native city of Medellin, in northwestern Colombia, which has been devastated by drug-related crime. (Botero’s sculpture of a dove in a Medellin park was destroyed by a bomb in 1995.) The artist said he returns to Colombia frequently but doesn’t stay long, for security reasons.

A continuity of style

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Although Botero’s subjects have changed drastically in the last few years, his style fundamentally has not. It remains steeped in early European Modernism and reflects his encyclopedic knowledge of Western art history. As a young man visiting Europe, Botero spent hours poring over works in the Louvre and the Prado. Their influence seeps through his new Colombia-themed paintings and drawings. An apparent forerunner is Goya’s landmark “Disasters of War” etchings series, a visual narrative of the horrors of the Peninsular War (1808-14) that began when Napoleon tried to place his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne and sparked an uprising.

That war also inspired Goya’s large-scale masterpiece “Execution of May 3, 1808,” an obvious antecedent of Botero’s “Massacre en Colombia” (2000), which shows a group of villagers being shot to death. Botero’s 4-by-6-foot painting includes a startling technical innovation: The whizzing bullets are clearly visible, floating as if in slow motion. Like Goya’s famous work, “Massacre en Colombia” freezes the action at the instant of death and, for the viewer, the moment of moral reckoning.

Compositionally, “Massacre en Colombia” also evokes Manet’s “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico” (1867-68), Picasso’s “The Massacre in Korea in 1951" and Robert Capa’s famous photo of a slain Spanish Republican soldier falling to his death. “The theme of execution by firing squads has been treated many times,” Botero said. “The important thing is to treat it in an original form.”

What makes Botero’s Colombia series truly chilling is what you don’t see: The killers and torturers usually are off-camera, as it were. Their absence underscores the shadowy nature of Colombia’s civil war, which began decades ago as a face-off between Marxist guerrillas and the Colombian government but now is driven as much by drug money and payback killings as by political ideology.

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Other Colombia-themed works with deep roots in Western art history include “Madre e hijo " (Mother and Child), a bitter burlesque of the traditional pieta of the Virgin and Christ child. Botero’s version depicts a skeleton infant and mother, a vulture perched on her bony shoulder. In both the Colombia and Abu Ghraib paintings, Botero’s bright, playful palette and the doll-like quality of his human figures enhance the pathos and horror of the scenes.

Even in a world saturated with imagery, Botero said, painting still can help us to visualize what photography or video can’t witness, whether in a remote Colombian village or a prison cell in Iraq. “Generally, the photographer arrives in the moment when something has already occurred,” he said. “Reading the texts of the U.S. press about the [Iraq] war I could visualize it, what was happening. Clearly, the photos served me to be able to see the surroundings in which these things occurred. But I never use a photo to make a painting.”

While photojournalism and newspaper stories can record precise moments in time, Botero said, art has a unique capacity “to make us remember things.” He cites Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica,” a visual elegy to the town leveled by fascist bombing during Spain’s civil war, which has become a universal emblem of war’s savagery and waste. “Art continues a common remembrance or testimony,” he said, or leaves “a permanent accusation.”

At times Botero has been criticized for refusing to give his works a more specific political or ideological slant, for not taking sides, in effect. But Eugenia, the museum director, said that with these new works Botero is uttering a cri de coeur against cruelty and destruction around the globe, not only in Colombia and Iraq. “Everywhere there is violence,” she said, “so it’s a testimony of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

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Botero said he hasn’t finished with the theme of Abu Ghraib. “I’m sure when I go back to Paris ... my mind will produce some more images. I think I have something else to say, you know?”

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Reed Johnson can be contacted at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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