The agony of irony


The Colombian artist Fernando Botero has painted images of US torture in Iraq that defy his preference for the improbable
and desire to please


Botero: Works 1994-2007
2007, Skira editore
195 pages, hardback, illustrated

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

BORN IN A continent well acquainted with bloody and degrading treatment, Fernando Botero was so moved in 2004 by news about the treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison that this artist from a bygone era felt the need to express his feelings.

From this sense of anger and outrage originated the 42 oils and etchings that compose the magnificent collection illustrating this book.

It is strange at first to associate the images of, mainly male, brutality seen by millions on television with the meticulous paint strokes of an artist obsessed with colour and the sensuality of round, female bodies and voluminous forms.

Somehow, however, the Colombian artist manages to make his style work when dealing with this very serious theme without diminishing the drama of the subject in any way.

His aim was not to make a political comment but to denounce, in his own way, what had come before his eyes. Botero demonstrates an almost tangible empathy with the victims of US torture in his depiction of the naked and vexed bodies of those captured. He would not sell these paintings, determined not to profit from human suffering.

Deadpan aftertaste

The artist’s tone has moved away from the evident sarcasm of the “Official Portrait of the Military Junta” (1971) to leave his audience with the deadpan aftertaste one gets after watching footage of agony on television (or even watching a gory bullfight) while having dinner on a tray.

The irony inherent in this book is made more evident and interesting when the viewer begins to compare the Abu Ghraib etchings and paintings to the images of plenty and playfulness with colour and light of the other works in the volume, such as “Circus People” (2007), “Venus and Cupid” (2006) and the “Vatican Bathroom” (2006). Even the animals lose their candour when you compare “Dog” (2002) with Abu Ghraib 45 (2005).

Botero is currently the most sought-after Latin American artist, but his acceptance in New York was hard as, when he arrived there, “being figurative was the equivalent of being a leper”.

The artist has said that his obsession with big and bouncy forms came from being a regular punter at Corridas as a child, and this love for form transformed into painting has been with him since his teens.

His world and that of painting have been transformed greatly since the days in which he had to invent worlds to meet his need to express himself. Botero has explained that he is “neither a cubist, impressionist, surrealist, nor an expressionist” – he is merely what he is.

He did not come from a capital city and, although he follows the technique of the old masters such as Velázquez and Piero della Francesca, he does not believe in the cultural colonialism that some Latin American artists have followed. He prefers working on subjects that are improbable but not impossible, and to express kindness, rather than shocking or annoying the public as seems to be the trend in modern art. This aim to please, therefore, has led him to portray images that hark back to a pre-drug trafficking, pre-guerrilla Colombia, even pre-highways and global ailments – to a society in which the natural human form mattered more than sculptural, self-inflicted starvation.

Many have said that Botero is a painter of fat people (but not on the same wavelength as the late Beryl Cook), but if you are looking only for a coffee-table book, you will be disappointed. This is serious stuff.

The book also contains – perhaps inexplicably – an unpublished text by Erica Jong, the author of Fear of Flying, and an introduction by Rudy Chiappini, director of the Museum of Lugano, Switzerland. The first edition of this volume was published for the exhibition “Botero” at the Palazzo Reale in Milan from 6 July to 16 September 2007.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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