Michelangelo had his gladiators, Giacometti his stick figures, and Rubens his hefty, lumpy ladies of leisure. Distinctive body types can define an artist, and no one had captured the dignity of a large body like the early 17th-century Flemish master until contemporary artist Fernando Botero.
In fact, he took the style and made it completely his own.
One of today's foremost living artists, Botero creates figures that are instantly recognizable and utterly unforgettable. Every object, person, fruit or animal inflates dramatically by his hand. When describing Botero's art, writers apply euphemisms such as "rotund" and "blimpy" to soften what many refer to as simply "fat."
This girth is a winning trademark and one that has not changed since Botero's breakout in 1961, when he unveiled his plump take on the "Mona Lisa."
The Baroque World of Fernando Botero, set for display through mid-August at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, includes paintings, small- and large-scale sculptures and drawings from all periods of the Colombian artist's career, spanning nearly 50 years. The 100-piece retrospective, organized by Art Services International of Virginia and featuring works only from Botero's private collection, has traveled to about a dozen American museums over the past three years.
Botero, speaking in a heavy yet lyrical Spanish accent from a studio in Greece, says the only way to pull off an exhibition like this was to furnish the work himself.
"I kept some of the recent work and bought back the paintings I sold before," he says. "No one would lend you a painting for four years, you understand."
Apart from logistics, Botero, now 77, collects his works for personal reasons: "It was important to me that I had paintings from every period I did."
Although Botero's worldwide popularity regularly leads to public commissions in Jerusalem, New York City, Bogotá and other major cities, The Baroque World is the first U.S. retrospective of his art since 1974.
Viva la revolucíon
Born in Medellín, Colombia in 1932, Botero studied art throughout Europe before coming to the States in 1960. He arrived as a burgeoning artist during the twilight of the immensely popular Abstract Expressionist period.
New York was enamored with artists such as Jackson Pollock, and figurative painting was all but dead, says Fine Arts Center curator of Hispanic and Native American Art Tariana Navas-Nieves. Yet Botero remained thoroughly inspired by the early Renaissance works he had studied in Italy.
"He was going totally against the current," says Navas-Nieves. "He had to be gutsy."
But not obstinate. Botero acknowledged the return to two-dimensionality in Western painting in some of his early works, experimenting with the New York style even as he stuck to figurative painting. For instance, 1959's "Girl Lost in a Garden," blocky and flat, demonstrates a rough paint application in fashion at the time.
"The art was, before Giotto [the early Italian Renaissance artist], flat," he says. "Giotto invented the possibility of creating, on a flat surface, the idea of volume and space. This was a revolution. Now in 20th-century art, art became flat again."
He easily adapted to the form. But his patchy brushstrokes eventually smoothed out and all but disappeared, leaving the glossy, clean finish for which he is known today.
Navas-Nieves feels that Botero's figures are so startling, viewers are apt to forget about his painterly skill.
"I believe you know how good an artist is by their drawings, their draftsmanship," she says. And with the Botero drawings included in the exhibit, "You really see what a talented artist he is."
'Exaltation of life'
Talent aside, when one encounters a Botero work for the first time, the question is always, "Why the fat people?"
When asked (more tactfully), Botero starts with his education.
"I went to study in Florence. I was 19 years old. I saw the volumetic art of Florence: Michelangelo, Masaccio, Giotto, all these great artists that actually invented the idea of volume on a flat surface. Then I was very taken by the sensuality of the form of these paintings. Then I started to work in that direction. ...
"It was my desire to create the exaltation of life through volume and sensuality."
Says Navas-Nieves: "While there may be an element of satire in some of Botero's works — for example, the works that point to the role of the [Catholic] church in Colombia — ultimately all of the subjects he chooses provide him with a fantastic opportunity to portray them in his unique and radical Botero style ... I think ultimately Botero knew he wanted to be unique."
It's easy to take Botero's work as satire. Our cultural standard of svelte beauty frequently leaves us transfixed solely by the size of Botero's subjects. But his figures gain earnestness in their expressions and a legitimate sense of weightlessness. They aren't bound by their tight clothing or hefty limbs.
One work in the show, "Dancer at the Barre," portrays a ballerina practicing gracefully in a clean, bright studio. She holds her leg up and out at an extreme angle, moving just as freely and competently as all of Botero's figures do. Whether dancing, resting, smoking, or cradling an infant Jesus, no one is clumsy.
"Art has always been deformed," Botero says of his proportions. "Even Raphael, even Michelangelo ... Sometimes you see African art or Asian art, [and you] accept this total deformation."
His influences draw from numerous sources; Navas-Nieves names European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Diego Velázquez as two sources, as well as Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera. She also links the monumentality of Botero's subjects to the pre-Columbian art ubiquitous in Latin and South America.
Botero is a student of art history, says Navas-Nieves when speaking of the many works from which Botero sampled. Like a contemporary musician who pays tribute to his influences by covering their songs, Botero essentially re-created famous paintings in his own style. He imbues sleek, bright paint applications and inflated figures to princesses by Diego Velázquez, or dukes by Piero della Francesca. The results are never grotesque copies, but kindred homage.
Botero explains that the tradition of repainting works has a long history in art, and grows out of the artist's desire to learn more about the painting.
"I think he has great respect and he admires artists of the past," says Navas-Nieves. "He's an artist that understands what he owes to the past. All of that investigation, all of that exploration is him figuring out what is going to be Botero, what is going to be Botero style."
Sense & sensitivity
With all this talk of ballerinas, princesses and dukes, newbies may be surprised that Botero's quite open to tackling violent subjects. After photographs of the Abu Ghraib crimes surfaced, he quickly completed a series of graphic, wrenching images of torture victims in response.
The victims in the paintings, more muscular than past figures, are blinded and bound in a spare cells. All are naked or stripped to their underwear and are being antagonized by dogs or forced into humiliating postures.
Many Americans reacted viciously at first, accusing Botero of, among other things, exploiting the situation through his silly style. As emotions cooled, the works, about 50 in all, were widely accepted as competent, sensitive portrayals. They've traveled to the University of California, Berkeley and the American University in Washington, D.C., and in time, Botero hopes to donate them to a U.S. museum.
While the Abu Ghraib series is not a part of The Baroque World, scenes in the show depicting massacres and refugees in Colombia starkly contrast the leisurely feel of the other works. His darker side continues through his Catholic pieces, by way of bloody saints and anguished martyrs. These works reflect a traditional Latin American take on Catholic art, even more dramatic than what you'd see in works from Europe's Baroque period. (This is perhaps the only "Baroque" element in the entire show, which Botero himself considers misnamed.)
It is a packaged show, yet the FAC's arrangement of it — with carefully chosen works placed in entrances and hallways — heightens its drama. The walls, painted in muted gray, puce and orange, showcase the richness of Botero's colors. The paintings are hung low to the ground, accentuating their size — many are five or six feet tall. Their breadth is stunningly majestic. Years from now, locals will still talk about the FAC hosting this show.
Those responsible for hauling the sculptures into the gallery may talk about it as well: It's the first museum in three years that could fit all three of Botero's one- to two-ton bronze statues indoors. (They've been shown outside everywhere else.)
The largest, "Smoking Woman," is the size of small car. Huge and round, she lazes on her belly. You have to smile; everything about her is overwhelming, nearly ridiculous. And yet, she's calming, clearly not a portrait of greedy excess or a cartoonish symbol of sex. She's living in a charming, serene moment, duly exaggerated.
In Botero's world, it makes perfect sense.
"You see, every artist goes to the extreme," he says. "Every important artist is obsessed with an ideal of doing something in some special way."