The Guernica Effect

Lucas Ospina on the the ability of an artist to memorialise history, from the April 2015 issue

By Lucas Ospina

Fernando Botero, Abu Ghraib 64, 2005. Photo: Ben Blackwell. Courtesy the artist

A Google image search for ‘abu ghraib’ results in a mosaic of 500 or so thumbnails. Almost two-dozen of these come from the series that Fernando Botero created, in 2004–5, from the infamous events encompassed in this term. A significant quantity, considering that no more than a hundred photos taken by US soldiers and military contractors in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 show up online. (A 2006 report in Salon magazine on the number of records relating to sessions of human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib revealed the existence of more than 2,000 extreme images and video files of suspected detainee abuse and its aftermath, the great majority of which were never published.)

Images of this American military infamy tend to disappear from Internet searches, or to be substituted by results increasingly far removed from the graphic nature of the acts, as seen in the growing number – almost 25 – of references to a 2014 film that, under the cowardly title Boys of Abu Ghraib, presents a sweetened portrait of a soldier of the occupying forces and features the sentimental formulas, predictable plot twists and generic conclusions of a made-for-TV melodrama.

It is possible that in the near future, as the Google grid fills with replacement images, Botero’s works will become the only ones recalling the actual events in Iraq. In his text ‘The Body in Pain’, published in The Nation in 2006, Arthur C. Danto writes that this series of paintings succeeds in establishing ‘a visceral sense of identification with the victims’, and quotes something the artist once said: ‘A painter can do things a photographer can’t do, because a painter can make the invisible visible’. In effect Botero painted these portraits to distance them from the photos and centre attention on the victims.

Botero has said that he is ‘addicted to news, to newspapers and to magazines’, stating that he looks at ‘the Internet’ daily. Just as the photos of Abu Ghraib prison disclosed in the press showed US soldiers toying with and stacking Iraqi prisoners in jumbled heaps as though they were still lifes, or posing as proud hunters or expert players of a videogame that raises torture to an artform, Botero took this information and, to paint it, went beyond the jailers’ art brut postcards, saw the scene with his mind, imagined it and exhibited it in this series that he refers to as a ‘permanent accusation’.

Danto – American, heartbroken, culpable – picks up on Botero’s comparison of his own works to Guernica and writes that, in contrast to Picasso’s 1937 painting (a ‘Cubist work that can serve a purely decorative function if one is unaware of its meaning’), with the Abu Ghraib series, the Colombian artist ‘immerses us in the experience of suffering’. He concludes, ‘The pain of others has seldom felt so close, or so shaming to its perpetrators.’ But more than the content of Botero’s work, it is the artist’s fame that made the series well known; it’s his name and reputation for rendering cheerful, chubby compositions that give these allegedly solemn and dramatic works such resonance. Although Danto may have misunderstood it here – guilt does not give good advice – something similar may have happened with Guernica.

when a famous artist pours his celebrity into the shell of a work, the spin of the high-profile moment produces a commemorating effect that would otherwise have been lost 

Picasso’s composition, commissioned by the Republican government for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, received a weak-to-chilly reception from critics and intellectuals when it was first exhibited; Spanish officials found it too timid and cryptic for use as propaganda, though they tried it anyway, given the echo chamber of an association with Picasso. The work toured in various exhibitions for years, and was consigned to MoMA, New York, for safekeeping during and after the Second World War. There it matured, along with the reputation of its creator, becoming an icon of fragmented child, adult and animal heads among lightbulbs and lamps, a collage in different shades of grey serving to record the German air force’s bombardment of the Basque town and, at the same time, represent any cause in which an oppressed population is at the mercy of fascist forces. (Guernica was returned to Spain in 1981 and is now in the collection of the Reina Sofía, Madrid.)

Such is the symbolism of Guernica that a copy, rendered as tapestry and hung prominently in the Security Council of the United Nations, was hidden behind a blue curtain when Bush administration officials stood before it and justified their war binge in Iraq, lest the Guernica effect highlight any uncomfortable associations.

It’s possible that Guernica is not Picasso’s greatest work, or that Botero’s Abu Ghraib series is just one more of the many circus works this esteemed artworld caricaturist has produced. What’s certain is that when a famous artist pours his celebrity into the shell of a work, the spin of the high-profile moment produces a commemorating effect that would otherwise have been lost between our forgetfulness of the past and a present that lies hidden in the mass of images.

The strength of the Guernica effect is seen, for example, in works such as Tania Bruguera’s voluntary – and involuntary – performance these past weeks, including the Kafkaesque detention the Cuban regime subjected her to in December, as well as in Ai Weiwei’s continuous clashes with Chinese authorities. The activities and works of these two artworld celebrities can be inane, derivative and unimaginative, but in the future such work, and the lyrical journalism it performs, may be all that survives as icons capable of reminding us that something was rotten in Cuba and in China in 2015.

This is the difference between the work of a famous artist – through which a news item becomes historical fact – and the efforts of hundreds of quasi-anonymous activists.

Translated from the Spanish by David Terrien. This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.