At least two questions hang over the exhibit of Fernando Botero's
paintings and drawings on the shameful abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that
will open at the main library at UC Berkeley a week from today.
The first is what drove Botero, who typically draws whimsical, oversized
pneumatic figures that have enormous popular appeal, to undertake these
paintings in the first place.
The second is why they'll be displayed in a Berkeley library, rather than
in the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim in New York, or SFMOMA.
Let's start with the first question.
The 73-year-old Colombian artist spent 14 months painting a series of 80
drawings and paintings that depict pain, degradation and torture -- all in
the style of his more popular work.
"Once in a while something comes along that strikes you in a dramatic
way," Botero told me when we talked by telephone from Mexico last week. He
pointed out that he has taken on more explicitly political subjects in the
past, such as his series on the ravages of the drug trade in Colombia.
He said he wasn't intending to "shock people or to accuse anyone" with his
Abu Ghraib depictions. He didn't do them for commercial reasons (they're not
for sale). "You do it because it is in your gut, you are upset, you are
furious, you have to get it out of your system."
Nonetheless, he hopes that as Abu Ghraib fades from memory -- the prison
is slated for demolition -- the paintings will be a reminder of what happened
there. "People would forget about Guernica were it not for Picasso's
masterpiece," he said. "Art is a permanent accusation. "
The trickier question is why no U.S. museum chose to exhibit them. The
only other place they have been shown in the United States was last November at
New York's private Marlborough Gallery, which has been showing and selling
Botero's work for decades.
Some museums may have had security concerns. Look at what happened to the
Copabianco Gallery in San Francisco, which was forced to close in 2004 after it
showed a painting depicting torture of an Iraqi detainee, and the gallery was
vandalized and its owner assaulted.
Some museums may have rejected the Abu Ghraib series for artistic reasons
(even though Botero's less serious works are in the permanent exhibitions of
many U.S. museums). SFMOMA says it wasn't offered the exhibit.
Then there's the likelihood that some were scared away by the content. By
contrast, several European museums, including the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, had
no problems showing the work.
Botero's paintings got the cold shoulder here despite favorable reviews in
a range of respected publications. In an article titled "The Iconography of
Torture" in this month's edition of Art in America, for example, the reviewer
said the Abu Ghraib paintings "bear comparison with much of the political art
of the modern era ... Like Guernica, Botero's Abu Ghraib paintings are a cry of
pain at the pointless suffering inflicted on the victims of wars." The
Washington Post's culture critic called it a "remarkable show, and a disturbing
When he read reviews like these, Harley Shaiken, chairman of the Center
for Latin American Studies at Berkeley, decided he should try to bring Botero's
work to the campus. "You may not like the art, you may not like the message,
but it is something worth discussing," said Shaiken.
After extensive faculty discussions, he arranged to have the work
exhibited in the main library. Botero will come to Berkeley for the opening.
There will be seminars to put the exhibit in a larger context. (For exhibit
details, go to www.clas.berkeley.edu). "A library is a place which has
enormously controversial and provocative ideas at its core," said Shaiken. "The
only difference is that we're putting these works on the walls instead of on
For a campus that spawned the Free Speech Movement, that is an entirely
Louis Freedberg is a Chronicle editorial writer.
©2007 San Francisco Chronicle