A permanent accusation
Tuesday 10 March 2009
How the horrors of Abu Ghraib provided Colombian artist Fernando Botero with inspiration for his paintings.
Show any Colombian a copy of this artist’s work and ask them who painted it and, without hesitation, you will receive the correct answer.
Fernando Botero‘s paintings and sculptures are among Colombia‘s greatest artistic treasures, but, although his huge canvases of brightly coloured rotund figures are instantly recognisable, the chances are that few people in Britain will have actually seen an original.
For, even though Botero is one of Latin America’s greatest contemporary artists, not a single significant British museum or gallery has ever hosted an exhibition of his work.
Perhaps sensing this apparent disdain, Botero paid a fleeting visit to London last week – his first in 25 years. He paused just long enough to take a few questions at a showing of a documentary on his art hosted by Discovering Latin America at Chinatown’s Prince Charles cinema.
Born in Colombia’s second city Medellin, Botero trained as a matador in the late 1940s before turning to painting and, by his own admission, came of age living on a city block in the red light district.
“I went a lot – all the time,” he breezily confesses and to his experiences in the bull ring and the bordello were soon added the influence of the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros [see also here] and José Clemente Orozco, whose social art dominated the Latin American scene at that time.
Botero’s style has changed little in more than 50 years, but the critics who dismiss his bright colours and curvaceous forms as “cartoon-like” or “simplistic populism” fail to grasp how the artist’s big-hearted, sensual depictions of a stunningly beautiful Colombia conceal almost unbearable violent tension.
Lush palm trees, brilliant tropical flowers and languid colonial streets alternate with scenes of rape, killings and military dictators.
And Botero’s deceptively simple portraits of presidents, generals and bishops become satire when tiny details, such as the flies buzzing around their heads suggesting a rotten regime, are noticed.
But recently, even the ceaseless, senseless violence of his homeland was eclipsed by what Botero himself described as “the astonishing inhumanity” of US soldiers abusing prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail.
“The United States is supposed to be a model of compassionate human rights, but look what they did. I was angry with this hypocrisy,” the artist declared to the Prince Charles cinema audience, packed with members of London’s Latin American community.
“I was in a plane reading about this and I immediately began to sketch images to express my fury. For 14 months, day and night, I was obsessed with this.”
Botero painted more than 80 graphic canvases of horrific torture scenes, of prisoners broken and bleeding, faces covered with hoods, blindfolds and women’s underwear as their US captors humiliated and terrorised them.
These works draw on Latin American baroque paintings of religious scenes, with Botero exchanging the depiction of Christ on the cross with Iraqi men tied naked to the bars of a prison cell, unable to escape the savage dogs unleashed by the soldiers.
But he insists that this lurid, disturbing series was not meant to be “anti-American. These paintings are anti-inhumanity. You cannot stay silent when something like this goes on.”
Botero does not intend to sell any of the Abu Ghraib works. “It is immoral to try and make money out of the suffering of the people,” he says. Instead, he hopes that a US gallery will have to courage to host a permanent exhibition because “this art is a permanent accusation.”
Now that President Obama has pledged to end the Iraq war, Botero feels that he can return to painting “because of love, rather than anger.”
“Some artists believe that creating art that gives pleasure is prostitution, that shocking people is art’s only purpose,” he says. “Because of this, I believe that we are living through the poorest moment in the history of painting.
“In 2009, where is Matisse? Where is Picasso? The poverty in the art I see right now is traumatic, but I hope there will be a reaction against this – I hope there are unknown artists working at the moment who can change this.”