Painting the Pitiable Prisoners of Abu Ghraib

Roberta Smith reviews painter Fernando Botero's "Abu Ghraib" collection, on display in Manhattan.

"A selection of Fernando Botero's 'Abu Ghraib' paintings, which were shown in Europe last year, can now be seen through Saturday at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan. They may not be masterpieces, but that may not matter. They are among Mr. Botero's best work, and in an art world where responses to the Iraq war have been scarce - literal or obscure - they stand out."

In other words, it's the message, not the art, that counts.

"Naked, bound, blindfolded, bleeding, alone or in groups, the prisoners in Mr. Botero's paintings are enduring torment and humiliation. These now familiar scenes are based on the images and written accounts that emerged when pictures of abuse by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light in 2004. The notorious naked human pyramid is here, as are prisoners in women's underwear, forced into sexual postures, threatened by guard dogs or tied to bars. Sometimes the boot or fist of a tormentor juts in.

"These paintings do something that the harrowing photographs taken at Abu Ghraib do not. They restore the prisoners' dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony or the injustice of their situation."

Driven by righteous liberal momentum, Smith suggests the Abu Ghraib abuse is as bad as the Nazi bombing of the civilians of the Spanish town of Guernica and even that ultimate evil - Richard Nixon.

"In the show's catalog the critic David Ebony suggests that these works are in the tradition of Picasso's 'Guernica,' Philip Guston's images of Richard M. Nixon, and Leon Golub's towering 'Mercenaries' series. Like them, the new Boteros hold art and politics in balance, creating the needed buffer to help us face the unbearable and maintain some hope. They may also convey the gratuitous cruelty of these events to future generations. That is good enough."

One wonders if those future generations will see any artistic tributes to the hundreds of thousands tortured and killed at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime, as opposed to calculated agit-prop like Botero's, preoccupied withpropagating left-wing cliches of big bad U.S. soldiers who humiliated terrorist suspects.