Undoubtedly one of the most prominent Latin American figures in the world of plastic arts, Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero is as famous for his proneness to incite, as well as engage in, controversy, as he is for the iconic plumpness of the shapes he depicts. Born in Medellín in 1932, long before the days of any of Colombia’s cartels, Botero’s early life can almost be read as a small-scale mapping of his country’s fate. Medellín was at the time a small city in the province of Antioquía, dominated by its mountainous setting, by its churches and by the emerging trade that would see it become Colombia’s second largest city. This is where Botero went to school, and where he developed his earliest passion for drawing and painting. But then the fates of Colombia and Botero alike were shaken on April 9, 1948, in the single most influential event to have taken place in the history of modern Colombia.
Amidst strong political tension in the country, and while both the IX Pan-American Conference (predecessor to the OAS) and its arch-left-wing counterpart, the Latin American Youth Congress, took place in Bogotá, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal opposition and popular champion of the disenfranchised majority, was murdered outside his office. His death immediately led to violent riots in the city, which shortly thereafter spread around the country, triggering a bloody period of civil strife, during which the first guerrillas were formed in Colombia, and which would not come to an end before the rise to power of military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, in 1953.
During this time, Botero, now in Bogotá, developed as an artist, gained certain amount of recognition and embarked on a journey to discover the great classics of Western art. He left to Spain in 1952, where he first came in direct contact with the work of Goya and Velázquez; then he traveled to Paris, to Florence, Rome, Venice and the rest of Italy. By the time Botero returned to Colombia, in 1955, he had not yet found his style – his personal trait – but he was in possession of all the elements which, to this date, shape his work: religion, South American tradition, a profound concern for violence and social injustice, and an acute awareness of art history.
If legend is to be believed, the breakthrough came in 1956 when, now a married man in Mexico City, Botero discovered the potential of volume and depth while completing his famous Still Life with Mandolin. From that moment onwards, Botero worked in developing a unique aesthetic which blends pre-Columbian figuration with XIV century perspective, the sharp colors of the Venetian tradition with the similarly explosive pigments of the South American – specifically Colombian – countryside.
Botero’s fortunes as a painter, and later as a sculptor, have varied drastically through the decades. Indeed, his standing today as the most important Latin American artist alive is not exempt of scorn from a considerable portion of the critical establishment, who, perceive his art as overrated, to be say the least. Alas, irony has never been far from Botero’s work, and he is, personally, quite capable of laughing with the critics (or, perhaps, at them). After all, who wouldn’t, when your paintings fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, and your sculptures go for millions?
And yet, once we get past the bloated shapes that dominate Botero’s proposal (and, admittedly, this becomes particularly difficult when we live in a society that idolizes slim figures like no other), we are faced with an oeuvre that is greatly enriched with symbolism, subtly conscious of its dual heritage and poignantly humorous in its portrayal. For instance, within the context of certain African tribes, plumpness (indistinctly, male or female) is considered to be a sign of health, wealth and, sometimes, even distinction; similarly, indigenous American cultures viewed full-bodied women as the sign of fertility and, ultimately, life. Undoubtedly, some of this pervades Botero’s work, as does the almost obsessive infatuation of a Piero della Francesca or a Paolo Uccello with geometric forms.
Some have adduced that Botero’s style has not changed since, well, 1956, or so. I am inclined to think Botero would plead guilty to this charge – after all, he might argue, how many worldviews does the average person have? And yet, while his style might not have changed much, the themes he chooses to depict do vary greatly, swinging from tropical landscapes to mythological representations, which turns his work into a vastly more varied compendium than, say Ellsworth Kelly’s (and I dare you to find the person who will question Kelly’s place in contemporary art).
Be that as it may, Botero did make one bold and hugely successful move in the 1970s, when he took to sculpture for the first time. While his voluptuous figures on the paper lend themselves perfectly to three-dimensional representation, seldom has the transition from one medium of expression to another been as seamless in contemporary artists as it was with Botero. So much so, that an artist who is essentially a painter is, these days, more known and better remunerated for his sculptures.
Until, that was, his indignation against the torturous treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel during the Second Gulf War prompted him to produce his (in)famous Abu Ghraib series, of more than 80 drawings and paintings. According to Botero, his intention was not really to display the paintings but to drain his ire, and, to give him credit, he has not sold a single one of the pieces that comprise the series, pledging instead to donate them to a public institution. If any will take them, of course. Because, as soon as Botero made the Abu Ghraib series known to the world, it was effectively banned from the public arena in the United States. Eventually, only the relatively modest Marlborough Gallery in New York ventured to show them, and even then the critique they received was fierce. Unsurprisingly, the series has outlived the critics and, while it hasn’t quite achieved the status of Goya’s black paintings, they are now regularly displayed in Botero exhibitions, most recently next to his following theme of interest: the circus.
Botero has never been immune to controversy. Indeed, sometimes it seems like he goes out of his way to spark it. That was the case just a few months ago, when he spoke publicly in tactless fashion against the judges who award a prize to young artists in Colombia, which is sponsored by himself and which bears his name. Disgusted with the choice of works, Botero bashed the prize to such extent, that the judges decided against awarding it to anyone and simply scrapped it from the calendar.
And yet, despite his recurrent relapses into contentious issues, or perhaps because of them, despite the radical reaction (good or bad) inspired by his work, he remains, undoubtedly, one of the most recognizable sculptors, along, perhaps, with Henry Moore, in the Western world. That is why Christie’s expects to fetch up to 1.2 million dollars for his large sculpture Woman on a Horse later this month in an auction to be held in New York. That is why, when the fat lady sings, Fernando Botero dances to the tune.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, MAY 15 2010.