Fernando Botero (1932)


Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero (Luis Fernando Botero Angulo) was born in 1932 and spent his childhood in Medellín. After losing his father at the age of four, his family was supported by an uncle who enrolled Botero in bullfighting school in 1944, where he spent two years. Despite having been terrorised by the bulls, he would remain fascinated by the world of bullfighting, to which his first drawings through final work will bear testament.

In 1948 at the age of sixteen Botero began publishing his drawings in the Medellín newspaper El Colombiano. In 1949 he was expelled from school for having drawn nudes and written an article entitled ‘Picasso y la inconformidad en el arte’ (Picasso and non-conformism in art) in the El Colombiano. It is during this time that he discovered European painters, was influenced by Pre-Colombian art, and by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974).

Botero left for Bogotá in 1951 where he visited the literary milieu which introduced him to the trend of Magic Realism. It was his first solo exhibition and the sales that followed that marked the beginning of his successes. After participating in the ninth Salon of Colombian artists in 1952, with Frente al mar (Oceanfront), and having won the second prize of a substantial sum of money, he decided to travel to Europe in order to continue his development.

In Spain he enrolled at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in San Fernando. He studied and used as his model the Spanish masters Velázquez and Goya at the Prado Museum. In Paris in 1953 he was disappointed by the contemporary collections at the Modern Art Museum, and instead went to study master paintings at the Louvre. In Florence he became more and more interested in 15th-century fresco painting. Admitted to the Academy in San Marco, he learned the fresco technique, studying the models of Giotto and Castagno. He continued travelling to visit other city centres of art.

Upon his return to Bogotá in 1955 Botero organised an exhibition of his Italian-period works at the National Library, however they were met with criticism and thus rejected by both the public and critics, who swore by the École de Paris.

It is when Botero settled in Mexico with his family in 1957 that he invented his own style, in a ‘Naturaleza muerta con mandolina’ which was an immediate success : he thus discovered how to represent monumentality by playing with proportions. In this case, a voluminous mandolin equipped with a tiny rosette.

From this moment his reputation did not cease to grow, for example in the United States, where he found the financial and moral support of gallerist Tania Gres, and also in Bogotá, where he was appointed professor of painting at the Academia de Bellas Artes.

From 1960, Botero continued his travels between Colombia, New York, and Europe, both living and studying ancient through contemporary art.
While the other well-known Latin American artists were inspired by European revolutionary artists (such as the Muralists), Botero frequently took as his source of inspiration the masters of the Renaissance, through nineteenth-century Ingres and Manet. He made a series of ten paintings after Velázquez (1959), a Mosa Lisa at the age of twelve (1959) after Léonard de Vinci’s Mona Lisa, portraits of Hélène Fourment after Rubens (1964), great charcoal drawings les Dureroboteros after Dürer, paintings after Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1967-69), a portrait of Federico de Montefeltro after Piero della Francesca (1998), as well as others of Mademoiselle Rivière after Ingres (2001). ‘To take as a model the painting of another painter, which I do often, is to measure oneself against the pictorial power of a work. If the aesthetic position of the new work is absolutely original compared to the model that served as the inspiration, the new work is therefore an original.’

With the exception of these works which pay a playful homage to the past, his preferred subjects are still lifes, female nudes, scenes of daily life in Colombia, and family portraits. Botero asserted that he does not use live models: ‘I have never worked with models. A model for me constitutes a limit on my freedom to draw or paint. I have never placed three objects on a table to make a still life. I have not even selected a place from which to reproduce a landscape. The truth is I need nothing before me. My choice of figures is arbitrary, and each is the fruit of my imagination’ (2007 interview).

We notice in all his faces a somewhat generalised absence of feelings or moods, as if the artist sought to create a neutral image detached from the human experience. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa uses language such as ‘lacking drama’ and ‘pre-romantic imperturbability’ to describe Botero’s art. These round figures nevertheless give off a surprising impression of grace and lightness. When asked about the weight of the figures, Botero responded: ‘They are not fat – my figures have volume, which is sensual. Finding the volume that contemporary painting completely forgot, this is what I am passionate about.’

In many cases, these disproportionate and voluptuous forms also gives rise to a bit of humour, even irony, which is accentuated by the bright shimmering colours coming to life on the canvas.  (An exception is the 1959 series after Velázquez, of which the monochrome tonality and nervous touch most likely echo Abstract Expressionism that the artist had just discovered in New York.)

It is precisely this compilation of colours associated with movement that fascinated him in the art of bullfighting. To him, bullfighting was an inherent dimension of Spanish culture. He was so captured by its magical beauty to the point that he painted corridas almost exclusively from 1984 until 1986.

However, in this same style, the artist also represented serious and tragic themes, beginning with a series dedicated to the first years of the life of his son Pedro, who died in 1974 at the age of four in an automobile accident. In 2004, seeking to denounce the inhumane treatment inflicted on those detained in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Botero created and promptly exhibited a series of 87 drawings and paintings based on the accounts and photographs of American soldiers who witnessed the abuses. He presented Via Crucis, a series on the Passion of Christ, in October 2011 in New York, the city which according to him promotes vice.

Sculpture, a discipline he undertook for the first time in Paris in 1973, further permit the artist to express himself openly. In 1995, an attack in Medellín struck multiple individuals and destroyed his sculpture Pajaro de Paz (The Bird of Peace). Botero thereafter gave to the city a replica, placed next to the remaining fragments of the damaged sculpture as a gesture of peace.

Botero created a unique style that remains independent of every other artistic style, and has made him the most well-known South-American living artist in the world.

He has generously given so many works to Musée de Zea in Medellín that they created a gallery in honour of his son, ‘Pedro Botero’. He also made gifts to the Museo Nacional, Bogotá and the Museo d’Antioquia, Medellín, the latter of which currently holds the greatest collection of his works. In 2000 the Museo Botero, Bogotá opened with free entry to house the artist’s personal collection, which includes 123 of his own works in addition to 85 others by artists such as Renoir, Bonnard, Picasso, Beckmann, Chagall, Dalí and Miró.

(Martine Heudron)

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