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(Re)Discovering Fernando Botero

Mujer Con Fruta

(Re)Discovering Fernando Botero has been one of my main artistic revelations as I journeyed through South America earlier this year. I have to admit it, until I travelled to Medellín in February, I had no idea that world-famous sculptor and painter Fernando Botero (1932 - 2023) was Colombian, even less that he was born and spent much of his life in Medellín. If you think of voluptuous women, large-scale rotund bronze sculptures and colourful paintings of exaggerated voluminous subjects - well, chances are that's by him. I've known Botero for a long time, but I'd never connected with his work. I found it too cartoonish, outré: the characters and scenes he depicted remained foreign and did not resonate with me. There is something unmistakable about him, but each time I saw one of his artworks, I remained on the surface of it. All this changed, when I re-discovered him, as I was touring Colombia and met with a curator who opened his world up to me. This is, in a nutshell, what I've learned.

Botero was an artist interested in painting volume, and what started as a mistake in painting relative proportions, in one of his early paintings of a mandolin, came to embody his style. As his body of work took shape, he became interested in proposing a different canon to the European model of femininity. Instead of painting the typical slender, pale-skinned beauty ideal, prised by Western society, Botero took as its archetype the bodies of indigenous Colombian men and women. He drew heavily on the natural and animal realm, and their symbolism in Colombian culture to infuse his artworks with deeper meaning.

To illustrate this, I want to look at a few artworks from the Museo Antioquia in Medellín and the Museo Botero in Bogotá. In the latter museum, one sculpture stopped me in my tracks more than any others. It is called Pareja, or Couple (right). It is a sculpture of a couple, seen from the back. I love the curvaceous hips and buttocks of the woman, a pendant to the man’s wide shoulders. The couple’s morphology is so Colombian but also universal.

I was also taken by the painting of the artist and his model, a female nude seen from the back (left). Botero has reversed the usual perspective for this type of painting - you see him as the painter, gazing at the sitter, who, seen from the back, is much more imposing in size. The mirror reflects nothing, but part of a door. Botero is playing with sight lines, perspective, and the representation of actor and subject.

La Familia Colombiana (right), on display in Medellín's Museo Antioquia, offers an insightful perspective on social mores in Colombia, and in particular on unfaithful husbands. It is not uncommon in South American countries for men to harbour second families within the same household as their official families, as a result of their extramarital relationships with live-in staff. This family portrait in which the wife is staring sideways at someone outside of the picture frame, surrounded by flies (a sign of something rotting, in this case a marriage) is incredibly clever.

Also on display in Medellín is Exvoto (above). This painting was in fact Botero's submission for the second Coltejer Biennale de Artes in Medellín. In the painting, he represents himself as winning the Biennale's top prize and giving thanks for it to the Virgin Mary, as well as receiving the prize money, which he badly needed to pay his debts at the time. It was his plot to force the hand of the jury, but surprise, surprise - they didn't fall for it, and he was not awarded the top prize, nor any prizes for that matter (a slap for his ego!). For me, the painting represents an insightful allegory of the artist, the art world's weird ways of working, as well as the money and greed that are rampant within it. It also shows Botero's personality, not one to shy away from self promotion. But as many artists know, to make it in this world, you have to have some chutzpah.

Toulouse-Lautrec in Botero's collection

Botero was also incredibly clever about preserving his legacy (and self-promoting): 20 years ago, he donated many of his works (paintings and sculptures) to both Museo Botero in Bogotá and Museo de Antioquia in Medellín. Museo Botero also received some of his personal art collection, which included stunning paintings by masters of modern art, from Marc Chagall, to Sonia Delaunay, Oscar Kokoschaka, Frank Auerbach or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (left). In Medellín, over 20 of his donated bronze sculptures are now displayed in Plaza Botero, in front of the museum. This ensured that his work and influence remain firmly established in the art scene of the country. And rightly so.

Museo Botero, Bogotá

I know that there is a school of thought that says 'art should speak for itself', and ignores the historical context of artworks, in order to allow viewers to form their own interpretations of a piece. But I must admit that I don't belong to that school. To connect with an artwork, I need to be given its keys, a way in. I need to understand its cultural context and cultural references. Placing Botero’s oeuvre in his Colombian origin, understanding that he was trying to question conventional notions of beauty based on different assumptions, and unveiling the intricacies of Colombian culture have helped me connect with his work on a much deeper level. I’m a fan. 

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