In Colombia, Reveling In The Human Comedy Of Fernando Botero

Mona Lisa by Fernando Botero
Mona Lisa (Photo Credit: Website of Banco de la Republica Colombia)

“Al man le gustan las rechonchas.”

The gallery-goer, hands clasped behind his back, is leaning in to his bemused-looking girlfriend. He assays the faintest of smiles, as the two contemplate the outsized canvas. Depicted on it is a bloated, babified Mona Lisa with diminutive hands.

Dude likes them chubby.

Crass? Perhaps a bit. But as the girlfriend’s grin hints, his remark is not inappropriate. Indeed, everyone who comes here starts out thinking the same.

“Here” is the Museo del Banco de la República in Bogotá. “El man” is Fernando Botero, the painter of the multiple images enshrined on the wall, and likely the most immediately identifiable artist in Latin America.

For many, this identifiableness stems from one quality: heft. In canvas after canvas, the Medellín native insistently inflates his subjects—largely female—beyond mere rotundity to the point of caricature. Case in point: the Mona Lisa on the wall, dating from 1978, is more Russian matryoshka doll than Florentine fashion plate.

Yet if this bulk has made Botero distinctive, it’s also diverted discussion of his work into the minefield of psycho-sexual speculation. “What’s with chubby fetish?” museum visitors ask, distracted by the sheer ampleness on the canvases.

It’s an understandable question, given the female forms crowding the gallery. Here abound slip-clad demimondaines puffing languidly at cigarettes the size of matchsticks. Bovine first ladies in the presidential palace. High-stepping, totally un-Degas-like dancers at the bar. All of them not merely Rubenesque, but bloated to bursting beyond even the great 17th-century Flemish painter’s vision of female fleshiness.

And yet, Botero himself has repeatedly insisted the chunkiness is a red herring.

“I don’t paint fat women. Nobody believes me, but it’s true.”

Today, at 85 still hard at work in his Paris studio, the unregenerate paisa (Colombians’ term for natives of Medellín) continues to disavow all plus-sized predilections. Indeed, as though to mock his would-be psychoanalysts, each of his three wives, including the current one, the Greek painter Sophia Vari, has been sculpture-svelte.

Sly teasing of the critics who would pigeonhole his work? An artist’s plea to be judged on purely aesthetic criteria? Or mere smoke screen to conceal a Freudian fixation?

Botero merely shrugs his shoulders. An artist, he reluctantly admits, necessarily has his obsessions.

“I have them. All of us do. And maybe I’ll die with them.”

Still Life With Mandolin by Fernando Botero
Still Life With Mandolin

Matadors and Mandolins

Botero’s aesthetic obsessions began when he was an adolescent. Significantly, they were born in the bullring, not the art gallery.

“It was through bulls that I came to love painting,” he says.

It was a classic Latin American case: art springing from popular roots. As a boy, he would hang around the plaza de toros in Medellín, where his uncle had enrolled him in a school for matadors. (Bullfighting, he maintains, has been his only hobby.) There he came across the posters of Ruano Llopis, a Spanish popular painter. The kinetic swirls of color and movement electrified him.

Very quickly, he traded his toreador’s cape for the palette. He began painting frenetically—painting and selling. His first commission was for a watercolor of a bullfighter. Soon he was doing the Sunday illustrations for El Colombiano, Medellín’s main newspaper, while studying Picasso and other modern masters on the side.

The violent newness of 20th-century art was bracing for the teenaged paisa. But however extravagant his forays into its thickets, his work never lost touch with its roots in el pueblo.

“All art is local,” he affirms. “Cervantes himself wrote about a small local place called La Mancha.…Art that has no connection with local traditions is a horrible thing, with neither essence nor roots.

“My work basically aims to meld Colombia’s provincial life with [the early-Renaissance painter] Piero della Francesca.”

Botero got abundant opportunities to study the latter when he moved to Europe in 1952. There he subjected himself to a rigorous apprenticeship, copying old masters in the Prado and the Louvre, and later attending the San Marco Academy in Florence, where he drank deep in the Italian Quattrocento.

His art, however, had not yet found its voice. Upon moving back to Bogotá in 1955, he saw an exhibition of his criticized for its lack of a personal style. “Derivative,” snorted the reviewers. It was thus to hammer out his own individual vision that he moved to Mexico City the following year, after marrying Gloria Zea, his first wife.

There, something marvelous occurred. While working in a park on a canvas titled Still Life with Mandolin, he accidentally placed a dot where the instrument’s sound hole should have been, causing it to appear bloated, monstrous. An error—but one that seemed to hint at new horizons. He began experimenting with size, proportion, volume, as well as with static-looking portraits, a la the early Renaissance, all done in flat panels of color. All at once, what would become his characteristic style swerved into view.

“It was like going through a door and entering another room,” he would later say.

Maribárbola by Fernando Botero
Maribárbola (Photo Credit: Website of Banco de la Republica Colombia)

Conquering the World

The room entered by Botero that day would soon expand into an entire world—but only after he’d begun to explore it. And only after he’d gone north.

By the 1960s, the art scene’s center had shifted. It was now no longer in Paris, as before the world wars, but in New York. Botero began visiting the Empire City in 1957, eventually installing himself in a Greenwich Village walkup in 1960. There he made one of his most important conquests, in the person of Dorothy Miller.

Miller was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Like the rest of the New York art world, she was knee-deep in the abstract expressionism fashionable at the time. Yet she found herself mesmerized by Botero’s Mona Lisa, Age 12. The collage-like composition didn’t yet evince Botero’s mature style, but its rotund main figure and sly humor, both of which hint strongly at what was to come, were already in place. Most intriguingly, the canvas also displayed a quality that for some has marked Botero off as a characteristically “postmodern” artist: his allusiveness.

It’s a quality abundantly on display in the Bogotá Museo. Obsessed by the old masters he’d so assiduously copied, Botero had begun to reinterpret them in a kind of personal pastiche that was half parody, half homage. Witness, for instance, his sly updating of Goya’s satire of Spain’s King Carlos IV in a work like 1967’s The Presidential Family, or his reimagining of one of the dwarfs from Velázquez’s Las Meninas in Maribárbola.

Miller was intrigued. Who was this daring young Colombian, who seemed so at home in the Western painterly tradition that he dared to appropriate the great Leonardo himself for his personal use? She couldn’t help it: she had to buy Mona Lisa—thus opening the floodgates for other curators to do the same.

By the 1970s, the word was out. Botero’s exhibitions in top galleries in the U.S. and Europe were major events in the art world. The buzz—and controversy—about his work continued to grow.

Manuel Marulanda "Tiro Fijo" by Fernando Botero
Manuel Marulanda “Tiro Fijo” (Photo Credit: Website of Banco de la Republica Colombia)

“I Have to Paint It”

Life’s pace continued to accelerate for the paisa painter. In 1973, hoping to put down stable roots, Botero moved permanently to Paris. There calamity struck. A freak automobile accident resulted in the death of his son Pedro, as well as the loss of a finger and some motion in his own right arm. Yet Botero forged on. From 1975 to 1977, he devoted himself mainly to sculpture, producing an ever-bulkier series of bronze masterpieces, some weighing as much as 3,000 pounds. His subjects harkened back to his childhood: human torsos, reclining women, bulls.

By the 1990s, Botero’s work had undergone yet another metamorphosis. His subjects were increasingly political, taken from the nightmarish headlines of his native country. There appeared portraits of a dying Pablo Escobar and of “Manuel Marulanda,” a.k.a. Pedro Marín, founder of the FARC guerrillas who had declared war on the Colombian state—and attempted to kidnap Botero himself in 1994. In 1995, the FARC blew up a bird sculpture of his in Medellín it deemed to be “oppressive.” Botero’s response: to leave the destroyed statue in place, as a “monument to stupidity.”

He also kept on working.

“Art should be an oasis, a refuge from the hardness of life,” he stated. “But the Colombian violence is so out of proportion today that it cannot be ignored. Against all my principles, I have to paint it.”

Political turbulence effectively prevented Botero from returning to his country for a decade. Today, however, in the wake of the peace accords signed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016, Medellín’s beloved native son is able to spend part of each year at home, even as he remains hard at his easel in his Paris studio.

In 2000, he donated work worth $200 million to the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín and the Museo del Banco de la República in Bogotá. In 2002, he was inducted into the French Legion of Honor.

Museo de Antioquia, Medellin, Colombia
Museo de Antioquia (Photo Credit: the Museum’s Facebook page)

“The Exaltation of Life”

All signs point to Colombia’s era of violence now being past. But the luminous images that emerged from Botero’s studio during that era shine brighter than ever. Taken together, they represent an extraordinary range of human types: a human comedy, Latin-American-style, spanning all the personages the artist has encountered since stepping out from his provincial Medellín some 70 years ago.

Their ranks include generals and guerrillas, priests and paterfamilias, travelling salesmen on horseback and matrons in their boudoir. There are presidents in full pomp and blindfolded prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Prostitutes from small-town brothels and the mustachioed townsmen who dance with them.

And what of those figures’ now-legendary rotundity? What are we to make of an amplitude that encompasses innocent niñas and narcos alike?

Botero himself hints at the answer.

“I’m not interested in fat for fat’s sake,” he explains. “I make the characters fat to give them sensuality…For me, the pleasure in a painting comes from the exaltation of life, expressed in the sensuality of forms.”

Exaltation. It may seem ironic to compare Botero’s pudgy personages with the idealized human figures of Mantegna, Masaccio, and other Quattrocento painters. And yet the two inhabit not dissimilar universes. In their brilliant color, statuesque forms, and stylized poses, both aim to heighten life, to lift it out of its drab everydayness and enthrone it in a realm of aesthetic joy. Fatness, for Botero, is a reflection not of ill health but of a kind of radical innocence, the innocence of chubby babies who inhabit a more sensual world, purified of time and death.

There’s more. Botero’s vision also differs from his precursors’ in that it is essentially comic. “Rabelaisian,” he has called it, in homage to the bawdy creator of Gargantua and Pantagruel. A comedy that mocks at human folly even as it recognizes its inevitability. Said comedy may threaten at times to tip over into satire—in his political canvases, especially—but underlying it is always a deep vein of humanism. A humanism that accepts life as it is, and that roars with divine laughter at the great human burlesque.

And what does the painter feel, having transmitted so affirmative an outlook to the millions who’ve enjoyed his work?

“Bueno,” he says, sitting back and folding his hands on his (flat) stomach.

“For me, the public’s enjoyment has always been the best reward.”

Places to see Fernando Botero:

Museo Cultural del Banco de la República
Calle 11, #4-41 (La Candelaria)

Plaza Botero

Museo de Antioquia
Calle 52 #43

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