Define it as you will. We know the grimace and cringe. We know bound hands and blindfolds. The men in Fernando Botero’s paintings are being tortured. And we have the evidence—the photographs, the testimony of perpetrators, and the flesh-and-blood victims. On a sunny November morning in the nation’s capitol, I stood in front of image after image at the opening of Botero’s Abu Ghraib exhibit at the American University Museum in Washington DC, biting my knuckles as cameras flocked and snapped the Colombian-born artist behind me. In one painting, leashed dogs attack a bleeding prisoner. In another, men in hoods and women’s underwear are piled on top of each other. A guard strikes a prisoner in the head with a baton. Another urinates on two prostrate men. A bored-looking guard with green plastic gloves pours water over a bound prisoner’s face to simulate drowning. (A few miles away on Capitol Hill, on the eve of his confirmation as Attorney General, Michael Mukasey was refusing to confirm that such techniques meet the legal standard for torture.)
“I went to your museum in Bogotá last summer,” I told Botero, when we finally had a moment alone. He had round black glasses and a slow, serious walk, but his perfect, silver goatee broke into a grin at the mention of Colombia. Botero is beloved in South America, based in large part on one hundred paintings depicting the drug violence in his native country—scenes of village massacres, portraits of paramilitary leaders, and sleeping presidents. They were donated to Bogotá’s National Gallery on the condition that they be kept on display in perpetuity. But Sophia Vari, Botero’s red-haired artist wife, told me that these new paintings were different. “For the Colombian violence,” she said, “he had grown up with that, so you become—it is terrible to say—but you become accustomed. For America,” she said with hesitation, “it was such a shock.” I asked Botero why he thought Americans themselves hadn’t responded to the shock in the same way. His face suddenly creased with concern. “It is surprising, no?”
“Abu Ghraib” was meant to address this very question, to confront American audiences with these realities, but Botero had difficulty even finding a gallery to show the series here. The paintings traveled across Europe before they appeared in New York, then at the University of California, Berkeley—where he has since donated the collection—and finally here in DC. He wanted the collection to remain in America, for American viewers, to stand as “a reminder.” During the press preview, when journalists asked questions in Spanish (“Maestro—” they always began), he kept trying to respond in English. He wanted everyone—mainstream, monolingual America—to hear directly from his lips.
“For nine months,” Botero told me, “I was thinking about only this. I was reeling and reeling.” He began the series after Seymour Hersh’s article appeared in the New Yorker in May 2004. Botero was flying home to Paris as he read how the US Army had taken over Abu Ghraib, only to subject the prisoners there—many of them innocent civilians—to the same barbarous treatment that had made the facility notorious under Saddam Hussein. Hersh had gotten hold of the Taguba Report, which detailed the abuses:
Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.
While most of America shuddered and put the magazine down, Botero couldn’t look away. He began drawing right there on the plane and kept sketching, then, when he reached Paris, painting. “I did it because I was very angry, as the rest of the world was, at the revelation. It was a shock for the world, for everybody, but for an artist even more.”
After the initial spark of rage, Botero said it felt like painting always feels, whether your subject is a corpse or a flower. “You are thinking about the paint, the color, composition.” You have to be “faithful to your aesthetic ideals, to the painting before anything else.” For this reason, Botero did not deviate from his signature, volumetric style, which gives everything a whimsical, rolly-polly appearance. For years, his portraits, his fruits, and his fat violins have composed a satirical celebration of bourgeois life—food, music, money, and sex. I first encountered Botero through playful paintings like these, admiring them comfortably in the company of a gaggle of school kids.
But this method would seem to work counter to Botero’s newly serious—and often grotesque—subject matter. There is nothing cartoonish about Botero’s men, however; the paintings focus intimately on their bodies—hugely muscled, crouched to hide their nakedness. The volumetric style accentuates the vulnerability of Botero’s subjects, their bodies soft and exposed. There is so much of them to hurt.
The result, paradoxically, is that Botero’s paintings seem to move people more effectively than the photographs and testimony they were based on. Although Botero was careful not to include anything that wasn’t documented, the paintings are more affecting than the photos—which seem to have put most people off with their stark reality. People were disgusted, but not moved to empathy. When I asked him about this, Botero explained that the sheer scale, the nearly life-sized depiction, “is part of the thing,” but just as importantly, “the images are concentrated—there are no distractions, you go directly to the essence.” The prisoners bleed onto perfectly clean floors in perfectly empty hallways. The subtle effect is that you—witnessing—are entirely alone with the victims.
Even the torturers almost never appear. In some pictures, snarling dogs stand in for the Americans, shown only as hands at the ends of leashes. In others, the guards are implied by bars and bruises, or disembodied boots, urine streams, gloved hands. By eliding the guards, Botero keeps the focus on the suffering of the prisoners, but also implicates any system that would sanction such torture. “The gloves were a symbol of humiliation,” Botero said, his voice growing urgent. “In order to touch these people, you have to wear gloves. It says, ‘You are an animal, an animal that has poison or is dirty.’ You can’t touch them with your bare hands. This green color was especially impressive. It is awful, and that it was green … .” He trailed off.
“The responsibility of the artist is to do art,” Botero said, finally. “It happens that you are a human being also and have to express something at times … . Do art. As good as you can. Paint, and then say what you have to say.” The potential art has for protest, in other words, is in the twin outgrowths of a single impulse—the artistic attraction to aesthetic beauty and the outrage that often comes from such close attention, from witnessing. “Art is supposed to give pleasure,” Botero said—even art like this. “You look at the crucifixion and think, it’s so beautiful,” he explained, but at the same time, the more closely you study suffering, the more “you feel it. You feel it.”