Pious Protest; Three Exhibits Showcase Political Art

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Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Rare is the protest art that resonates long after the commemorated event has passed. Among the few examples is Francisco Goya's "Disasters of War," a series of prints depicting the brutalities inflicted on the Spanish by Napoleon's army. Another is Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," expressing outrage over the 1937 German bombing of a Basque town.

Today, when photos and videos instantaneously record the horrors of war, it has become much harder to create art in traditional media that truly shocks. The Vietnam War spawned no protest painting or sculpture of real consequence - unless you count Maya Lin's black memorial - and artists similarly are struggling to interpret the Iraq war.

The "Art of Confrontation," a trio of exhibits at the American University Museum within the Katzen Arts Center, proves the difficulty of making protest art that endures. Few of these works addressing war, capitalism and sexism are truly moving or memorable. Some demonstrate how protest art can easily turn into propaganda, as is the case with the most touted of the three exhibits: the first museum showing of Fernando Botero's interpretations of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.

These 79 paintings and drawings were created by the Colombian artist after he read the 2004 reports about Abu Ghraib in the New Yorker. "I did them because I was very angry," the 75-year-old artist said at a preview on Monday. "I felt I had to do something."

His images portray American soldiers' degradation of Iraqi prisoners but do not relate the specificity of the real prison or events within it. Unlike Goya, who witnessed some of the atrocities he drew, Mr. Botero did not, and his variations on a theme lack the stomach-turning immediacy of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.

The pictures are disturbing, but in a schematic, repetitive way meant to heighten the torture. Nude men are shown bound, beaten and bloodied. Some are hooded; others are dressed in women's underwear. In several paintings, ferocious guard dogs attack the prisoners. The American soldiers aren't shown except for a gloved hand, a boot or a stream of urine reaching from the frame into the picture.

For those familiar with Mr. Botero's work, the harrowing scenes are startling in their deviation from his usual repertoire of roly-poly, lighthearted figures. However, the artist doesn't completely abandon his familiar puffy, naive style in these pictures, and it works against his violent subject matter. In one scene, the interlocking prisoners appear no more horrific than Sumo wrestlers. In another, a barking dog and a screaming man, both baring sharp teeth, appear more comic than distressed.

Undercutting Mr. Botero's protest is an affected piousness, underscored by allusions to Christian iconography from Renaissance and medieval painting in his portrayals of suffering prisoners. This series amounts to a morality play staged for those who already oppose the Iraq war. It won't win any converts.

More revelatory is the 39-piece exhibit "Dark Metropolis" on the second floor. It is devoted to the surrealistic visions of an obscure San Francisco Bay Area artist, Irving Norman (1906-1989), who painted fantastic scenes critical of social conformity, military power and corporate greed. A leftist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, the Lithuanian-born artist created most of his large paintings during the 1960s, and they are tinged with the era's psychedelic mind-set. …