Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings may get permanent home in California


This video about Fernando Botero’s works on Abu Ghraib is called A Permanent Accusation.

From the San Francisco Chronicle in the USA:

Cal could be permanent home for controversial Abu Ghraib paintings

Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If the details can be worked out, Colombian artist Fernando Botero‘s potent Abu Ghraib paintings will find a permanent home at UC Berkeley, where the controversial images were shown last winter.

Latin America’s most celebrated living artist, Botero has offered to give the university all the pictures it displayed – 25 big paintings and 22 drawings of bound, bloodied and blindfolded naked prisoners, one pawed by a ferocious dog. They’re based on the photographs and stories of Iraqi prisoners tortured by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau has tentatively agreed to accept the gift, the monetary value of which experts peg at $10 million to $15 million.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement”, said Birgeneau, who saw the works when the exhibition opened at Cal’s Doe Library in January and was impressed by “their emotional impact and technical brilliance. I’ve written the artist saying we’ll accept them, subject to us being able to work out a reasonable set of conditions.”

Those conditions include how many of the works would be on permanent view and how they’d be loaned to other institutions. Botero, who is famous for the bloated figures in his playfully satiric paintings that now fetch $1 million to $2 million at auction, has said he would never sell the jarring Abu Ghraib pictures, which were first shown in Europe in 2005. He turned down an offer from the Kunsthalle Wurth museum near Stuttgart, Germany, to build a wing to house them.

“I think they should be here – in the United States – or in Baghdad,” Botero told Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker on the eve of the Berkeley show, which drew about 15,000 people over two months and inspired lectures and panels around campus on torture, human rights, terrorism and art. The works are now on view in a Botero retrospective in Milan and will tour for two years.

In April, the artist, who lives mostly in Paris, e-mailed Professor Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies, who had organized the show, to say he’d decided to give the works to UC Berkeley. He wrote that because of the school’s academic stature and “openness of spirit,” he wanted the pictures to reside there permanently.

“We were stunned. It was well beyond our wildest dreams,” said Shaiken, who relayed the offer to the chancellor, whom he praises for taking the risk of showing these provocative works and supporting the belief that “a university deals with ideas.”

Shaiken first learned of the Abu Ghraib pictures from a New York Times review of them at Manhattan’s Marlborough Gallery, which represents Botero. “These paintings do something that the harrowing photographs taken at Abu Ghraib do not,” wrote critic Roberta Smith, who considers them some of Botero’s best work. “They restore the prisoners’ dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony or the injustice of their situation.”

The works were shown at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome and other European museums, but American museums passed on them. It rankled Shaiken that the work by Latin America’s best-known artist “addressing one of the driving moral issues of our time” wasn’t going to be seen on the West Coast. He contacted Botero through his dealer and got the ball rolling. When officials at UC Berkeley’s Art Museum said the museum was booked for two years, Shaiken and colleagues set their sites on a space in the Doe Library leading to the stacks. In seven short weeks, pros at Oakland’s Atthowe Fine Art Services converted it to a gallery. The $120,000 to mount the show came entirely from private donations.

“We chose to do that because we knew the content would be controversial,” said Shaiken. He thinks American museums declined the exhibition because of “an unholy mixture of political timidity and critical aloofness.” Some critics dismiss Botero’s work as predictable and too commercial. “He’s accessible,” Shaiken said, “and accessibility makes some suspicious.”

Botero and Berkeley clicked from the get-go. “There was a natural engagement the minute he stepped on campus,” Shaiken said. People flocked from far beyond the campus to see the work. “Many were deeply moved by the art, others disturbed,” Shaiken said. “It did what art is supposed to do.”

After receiving Botero’s offer, Chancellor Birgeneau read up on Botero and sought opinions from people on and off campus. The response was overwhelmingly favorable, Chaiken said, but not unanimous.

Kevin Consey, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, reportedly is not a big Botero fan. He was out of the country Monday and was unavailable for comment. Museum spokesman Rod Macneil said there were concerns regarding the conditions surrounding the gift, “the requirements about the number of works that would have to be displayed and how they would be displayed. There was concern about the way in which it would impact our freedom to operate the museum.” (The museum is planning a new building in downtown Berkeley). “Everyone recognizes that these are clearly very important works. It would be a good thing if they remain in the UC Berkeley community.”

Botero has made no specific demands yet, Shaiken said, but “I think it is very likely that these works will be in Berkeley, and I think there’s no more appropriate place for them.”

Peter Selz, a retired UC Berkeley art history professor and one-time director of the university museum, wrote the chancellor urging him to accept Botero’s gift. “These are major, meaningful works of art,” said Selz, who was director of the Berkeley museum in the mid-1960s when abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman gave the university 47 paintings. The Botero gift is equally and possibly more significant than Hoffman’s, Selz said.

“I feel it’s very important for future generations to see these paintings chronicling the cruelty in our time.”

E-mail Jesse Hamlin at jhamlin@sfchronicle.com.

Note the adjective “controversial’, cowardly inserted in, especially, the headline about the Abu Ghraib paintings in this otherwise non-problematic article; because of some higher up at the San Francisco Chronicle, who is a Bushist, or scared of Bushist businesses advertising in the paper? It reminds me a bit of Pablo Picasso, admired by Botero: when, it is said, during the nazi occupation of Paris, a German officer entered Picasso’s workplace, and saw Picasso’s famous painting Guernica. Patronisingly, the officer asked Picasso: ‘Haben Sie das gemacht’ [Did you make that]? Picasso replied: ‘Nein, das haben Sie gemacht’ [No, you have done that [to Guernica]]!

Botero is indeed right that his Abu Ghraib work should be either in Iraq or in the United States. However, being in a California university, it will not be in a major art museum. It will also not be in Washington, DC, close to the culprits of horrors like at Abu Ghraib: the Bush administration.

Abu Ghraib Swept Under the Carpet, see here.

Corruption in Bush’s Iraq war: here.

9 thoughts on “Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings may get permanent home in California

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