Fernando Botero: The art world loses its heavyweight star
Colombia’s most famous artist has died, taking the secret of his trademark fatness with him
Colombian artist Fernando Botero poses on November 22, 2017, at the Hotel de Caumont, in Aix en Provence, southern France, as he prepares the exhibition "Botero, dialogue avec Picasso" ("Botero, a dialogue with Picasso").
Fernando Botero: The art world loses its heavyweight star
Fernando Botero, the Colombian artist who just died at 91, was never cool. If a British comparison springs to mind, it’s the work of Beryl Cook. While ‘serious’ artists painted in abstract, and others followed Marcel Duchamp in deliberately trying the patience of a bourgeois public, Botero’s work was both popular and humorous.
Neither quality made for critical cachet. Though he esteemed Picasso highly, he was more indebted to the old masters than anything as newfangled as Cubism. He did resemble Picasso in one way – he was incredibly prolific.
This sheer volume of production coupled with his popularity meant Botero’s style became instantly recognisable. It also lent itself to reproduction.
I once saw two of his figures – a man and a woman – pasted on the toilet doors of a tiny Florentine delicatessen. The context would no doubt have gratified Botero; he was a huge admirer of Renaissance art, having first understood the possibilities of colour after seeing Piero della Francesca’s fresco of Solomon meeting the Queen of Sheba.
The picture can still be seen on the walls of a church in Arezzo.
With success came a chance for Botero to live not far away, in a small Tuscan town. But the figures on the delicatessen’s toilet doors were nothing like Piero’s elegant courtiers. They were overweight and contentedly so.
Botero's cheerfully fat world
For Botero, there is no anguished thin man trying to get out of a fat one. In his imaginary universe, which came to be known as “Boterismo”, everything is cheerfully fat. Not just his humans, but the animals, the landscape, and even the elements of a still life are ripe with hearty rotundity.
For Botero, there is no anguished thin man trying to get out of a fat one. In his imaginary universe, which came to be known as "Boterismo", everything is cheerfully fat. Not just his humans, but the animals, the landscape, and even the elements of a still life are ripe with hearty rotundity.
Incredibly, Death itself is powerless to conquer such plenitude. He represents it as the least skeletal skeleton ever imagined, as in a tribute to a slain matador. In the painting, a heavyweight bull is ridden by a similarly stout image of Death. Like Goya before him, Botero had an abiding fascination with the bullfight. In his youth, he had trained to be a matador. In one of his paintings, a heavyweight bull is ridden by a stout image of Death bearing a bloody sword.
Yet when Ingrid Sischy asked the artist about this fat thing, Botero studiously avoided an explanation.
"There are worlds of different opinions on the subject of your work," she said. "At the eye of the storm is your obsession with the full shapes that most of us moderns try to stay away from, even if it's just through mental abstinence. What about these swollen forms? Why have you chosen them?"
Abstinence is a word you seldom hear associated with this particular interviewee. It was a bit of an ambush. Sischy had thrown caution to the winds and gone straight to the crux of Botero's artistic philosophy. But he was never going to disclose his secret that easily. Instead, his answer had all the clarity of an overweight sibyl: "This formation is not something that just came to my mind one day. It has been built through years of meditation."
"From the very beginning, I had some kind of inclination toward it, then gradually, through experience and knowledge of art history, I was able to rationalise my position, to know why I am doing it."
The natural rejoinder would be 'And why are you doing it?' However, perhaps detecting a facial prompt that wasn't picked up in the transcript, Ingrid didn't ask.
Instead, she followed up with a question about when Botero had first adopted the technique. It turned out that the first experiment, which had occurred in Mexico, involved a fat mandolin.
"I did one little hole that was not in relation to the size of the instrument and to my surprise I saw that now the mandolin had two monumental dimensions—volume and scale."
"There was something exciting about the dynamic of plasticity in these wild proportions. This was the actual beginning of what I am doing now, but I had been looking for a way to create a language of plasticity that would be effective and that people would be touched by since I decided to be an artist."
This is as much as we get. The next question is about Botero's family. Still, while we get nothing by way of explanation for the effects of fatness, we do have the sense that he was trying for the kind of 'plasticity' that would eventually lead to his wondrous statues. Something of that third dimension strained to break free of the canvas. His fat men and women were trying to get out of the narrow restrictions of the two-dimensional plane.
In most cases, this fatness has a predictably comic effect, especially in the innumerable genre scenes Botero created, showing people at play, dancing or picnicking, fatly. He had a particular fixation on kitchens, where his fat knives looked unequal to the task of slicing his improbably fat cakes.
In most cases, this fatness has a predictably comic effect, especially in the innumerable genre scenes Botero created, showing people at play, dancing or picnicking, fatly.
Fatness could also have a satirical purpose, most obviously in his portrait of the presidential family with its inevitable debt to Goya's unflattering depictions of the Spanish court.
The mountains are evidently Andean – a plump plume of volcanic smoke issues from one of them – but the fat mountains have also taken over the ground itself, suggesting either that the presidential family are massive, or that the mountains are molehills. The comic tone is not so undecidable. A fat army officer salutes with his podgy paw, while a fat cat stares out grumpily at the viewer.
But there is another artistic debt here, visible in Botero's self-portrait on the left side of the painting. He places himself behind a large canvas, just as Diego Velázquez had done in Las Meninas (1656), yet unlike the old master, Botero doesn't choose to look at us or at the subjects of his painting, nor is there any attempt to reproduce the well-known paradoxes of the original.
Surprisingly, he himself is plumper than in real life. He is not wearing glasses here. When he did choose a pair, they would of course be round.
The fact that he could include himself in the fatness of his vision makes the intention behind it more obscure than ever.
Yes, it could function in a jocular way, but it could also appear in more caustic reflections, such as his preoccupation with violence, whether it was the kind he recalled from his native Colombia, or the horrendous maltreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
Critics weigh in
In the latter instance, his aesthetic came close to its limits. Writing in the New York Times, Roberta Smith declared "They are among Mr Botero's best work, and in an art world where responses to the Iraq war have been scarce—literal or obscure—they stand out."
But do they stand out for the right reasons? Can they compare, for instance, with Goya's etchings of the Disasters of War? The problem is that fatness, which appears here just as it does everywhere else in Botero's work, has a problem conveying two things: solemnity and suffering.
One thinks of the emaciated Christ of the European tradition. With a sort of compulsive inevitability, Botero gives us the kind of over-fed Jesus no nails could possibly have held in place.
There is a truth to Grünewald's vision of suffering that Botero simply cannot conjure, and it comes down – amongst other things – to the sheer quantity of adipose tissue.
That didn't mean, however, that Botero was entirely defeated by the misguided use of fatness to escape the flat plane of his canvas.
First, there was the discovery of the third dimension. I don't think anyone would deprecate the monumentality of his statues, whether they are of horses, naked women or even a cat.
My personal favourite was the woman in Cartegena, Colombia, who seems so stolidly alive in her voluptuous curves yet has a lightness still, concentrated in a slightly raised left foot.
When have statues been more playful than this? It is as if a girlish laugh rings through the square opposite the walls of a convent.
It is notable, also, that Botero came full circle in relation to the largely abandoned art of fresco. In the little Tuscan town of Pierasanta, with its streets dating back to the Italian renaissance, he produced two stunning works to adorn his local church.
Just as with all his tributes to the old masters, these are entirely imbued with his aesthetic habits. And yet, they manage to pull off an air of piety and even a kind of solemnity, something closer in fact to the atmosphere of Stanley Spencer's religious paintings, but with Botero's utterly distinctive style.
In a touching way, they remind one of the kinds of art associated with indigenous artists in his native land, where a European pattern of the Madonna and Child spawned an abundance of mothers, as naïve as they were elaborate. It was the Pre-Columbian legacy, still surviving despite the imposition of the coloniser's beliefs.
During his childhood in Medellín, Botero had been starved of artistic influences. No one even told him about the surprising novelties of modern art. The only artistic representations he saw were hidden away in the gloom of the churches, and it was to this blissful ignorance that he returned for an image of paradise.
Unsuccessful attempts at sombre
For years, he had churned out images that revelled in the fun of everyday life, but whenever he had tried to adapt his style to more sombre subject matter, it had let him down.
Here, in contrast, there is something more suggestive than a caricature crucifixion or an obese portrait of a bad politician. The comical heaviness of the flying figures is somehow more sinister than conventional portrayals of the dead and their tormentors, such as the frescoes of another Renaissance master, Luca Signorelli.
Botero's fresco dares to hint at the folly of envisaging the afterlife in order to give our existence some retrospective meaning.
"This is the best I can do," he seems to be saying. "Any attempt to visualise heaven and hell is doomed to absurdity."