Even in a serene, sunlit atelier on Paris' Left Bank, the life-size paintings propped against the wall cast a pall of terror. A hulking dog snarls with bared fangs over a naked man lying bloodied and bound on a concrete floor. Naked, hooded bodies lie entangled in a pile. A blindfolded prisoner stands in women's red underwear. The paintings need no titles. The scenes of abuse by U.S. military prison guards in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, are unmistakable, almost as much as the painter's style itself. The Colombian artist Fernando Botero is, by his own admission, best known as "the painter of fat people," and his U.S. soldiers and Iraqi prisoners are as rotund as his comic ballerinas. But there's no humor here. His 48 paintings and drawings on Abu Ghraib have a haunting grimness that "came out of the heart," Botero told TIME.
On a flight from Bogotá to Paris last November, Botero tore an article on the abuses from a magazine and whipped out his sketchbook. "I began drawing immediately and when I got to Paris I kept going," he says; he worked for several months before completing the series. Botero, 73, says artists have for too long abandoned warfare to photojournalists. Picasso's 1937 masterpiece Guernica became the most lasting image of the Spanish Civil War, for example, yet there is no great art depicting the Vietnam War, he says or, until now, the war in Iraq.
Botero's paintings and charcoal drawings will be unveiled in June at Rome's Palazzo Venezia, as part of a retrospective of his work, which will then travel to Germany, Greece and the U.S. But so far, the Abu Ghraib series is not planned to be part of the U.S. exhibition. And the paintings will never go on sale, Botero says. "I want them as a testimonial. This will be remembered."