Laurie and Debbie say:
Charlie Anders, blogging at Other, was not the last person on the planet to learn about Fernando Botero’s paintings based on the Abu Ghraib atrocities. We know this, because we learned about them from Charlie, and we are both completely knocked out by them.
Take your time with the link to the pictures. Be prepared for very strong imagery, and be sure to scroll down far enough to get past the ones that show the artist with his paintings (and remember that gives you a scale; these paintings are big). Art is always tamped down by the computer screen: without that mediation, and full-size, these are certainly far more powerful than what we see here.
And what we see here is really extraordinary. At least two factors make this kind of political art an enormous challenge. The first, which is true about photography, and substantially true about painting, is the contemporary passion for shock art, coupled with shock images in the news, in advertising, in the movies. Ever since the camera became a common household object, since soldiers have been able to take snapshots of concentration camps and passersby can quickly photograph car accidents, we have been constantly barraged with images of real-world horrors. This saturation leads to a constant attempt to up the ante, and we are now so familiar with shocking images (from the extreme sadomasochistic to the heroin chic), that shock itself becomes bland, and loses its power to upset us or undermine our equilibrium.
The only way to achieve the artist’s goal with images like these in these time is to find art that breaks through the blandness of the shocking images. Botero has done this by transferring the Abu Ghraib images into his universe, using his stylized images of fat people, which have profound dignity and humanity. This technique also saves him from the other major pitfall of this kind of political art: often, good art has a beauty that makes it difficult to portray horror successfully … the very beauty of the art distances the viewer from the horrors, and has the power to turn the pain into metaphor. (These things happen with war movies as easily as on a museum wall.)
Botero has acknowledged his debt to Goya in other contexts, and this work has that genuine quality of Goya’s work, showing war (or torture) as truly horrific, without nobility, without glamour, just horrible. The tightrope between fine art that distances and fine art that truly portrays the underlying ugliness is very hard to walk. Botero walks it perfectly. And one aspect of this is his care with the historicity of his work:
“I didn’t invent anything. If I did, then all the rest of the paintings would lose their significance.”
Those few artists who manage to portray horror with beauty but without distance then face the next problem, which is a problem in the culture rather than in the images. Political art is rarely taken seriously as fine art, which is why this suite of paintings and sketches shows up in galleries, while any other new work of Botero’s would be seen in the major museums. Botero has been a brave political figure in the art world for decades, having taken on the drug wars of his native Colombia in the 1990s with a comparable series of realistic paintings, dangerous enough to make it hard for him to go home again.
We decided that we wanted to write primarily about Botero’s work, and not about what the critics are saying. And Charlie does an excellent job of pointing out the things that are wrong with this particular “critical analysis” from the Washington Post. If you read the Post article, though, take note of the way the reporter can’t quite get comfortable with his own disdain: he doesn’t want to like these paintings, he doesn’t want to be moved by them, and he wants to retreat into fatphobia and superiority … but he keeps getting trapped by the power of the work.