The Baroque World of Fernando Botero

This retrospective exhibition included nearly 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures drawn from Fernando Botero’s personal collection. Selected by Dr. John Sillevis, curator of the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, and presented in eight sections, these works revealed the influence of Botero’s Colombian background on his work. Themes of religion and violence, mysterious still lifes, larger-than-life sculptures, and tributes to the master artists he most admired offered a comprehensive look at Botero’s extensive oeuvre.

A painter, sculptor, and draftsman, Fernando Botero depicts the comedy of human life. Working in a broad range of media, he creates a world of his own, at once accessible and enigmatic, with a particular blend of violence and beauty. Botero has spent most of his years as an artist away from his native country, Colombia, but his art has maintained an uninterrupted link to Latin America. In fact, the key to understanding his work is to realize that his roots are in Medellín, and that his earliest artistic impressions were molded in a Colombian town close to the Andes Mountains. His first images drew upon the Spanish colonial baroque – the sumptuous decorations that flourish on the walls of every church in South America, with gaudy angels, tormented saints, the physical agony of Christ, and the pearly tears of the immaculate Virgin.

The term baroque comes from the Portuguese barroco, originally used as an adjective to describe a pearl of irregular shape. It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the word was applied to the arts and later became associated with the period following the Renaissance and Mannerism. It was used to describe works that were elaborate, exaggerated, and theatrical. Botero is easily described as a baroque artist because he deviates from the classical rules of art, specifically those of proportion.

Latin American baroque imagery is reflected in Botero’s work when portraying himself as a small boy in the arms of Our Blessed Lady of Colombia carrying a diminutive flag with the national colors, or in depictions of his mother as a widow, in her desperate struggle to survive with her three young children. These are key works in the art of Fernando Botero, connecting his own past with the present of his homeland, Colombia. But Botero can be even more explicit. He presents shocking images of terror and violence, referring to the political instability, the attacks, the kidnappings, and the torture prevalent in his country. These paintings should give pause to those whose criticism of his work centers on the corpulence of his ladies.

The Baroque World of Fernando Botero presented a selection of the best works from various stages in his development as an artist, with occasional “flashbacks” to the early works of the 1950s, when Botero devised images of children that resembled giant dolls with frightening expressions. In 1957, he painted Still Life with a Mandolin, enlarging the volume of the musical instrument in a manner that we now identify with Botero’s style. He continued in this vein, painting a figure of a young girl inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This painting was acquired – against the current of abstract expressionism that was dominating the art world in the United States at the time – by Dorothy Miller, curator at the Museum of Modern Art for that collection. After her initial support of Botero, museum curators the world over soon followed suit, presenting Botero’s works in major solo exhibitions.

The exhibition followed Botero in his extensive studies of the history of European art. In Spain he was particularly entranced by Velázquez’s Infantes – the daughters of the Spanish king – in their elaborate court dresses. In France, he studied Ingres, the nineteenth-century master of neoclassical perfection in line, and Delacroix, the master of romantic color. He was also influenced by Courbet’s teachings, which concerned the complex concept of realism. In Italy, Botero found his inspiration through artists from the Renaissance, including Uccello and Piero della Francesca. As a young boy, he admired some contemporary artists, including Pablo Picasso, and later he was confronted with the paintings and sculptures of Giacometti, who was in the habit of reducing his figures to an extreme slimness. These encounters were important for Botero’s development. He was inspired by European art, but not seduced. He turned his attention to Mexico, where the monumental murals by Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros had a profound impact. Botero absorbed the dramatic self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, and her idiosyncratic interpretation of Latin American folklore, and was intrigued by the mysteries of pre-Columbian artifacts.

Another important theme illustrated in the exhibition was the pomposity and misery of contemporary life in Latin America, including the pretentious affectation of presidents and first ladies as observed by Botero’s satirical eye. Also represented is the glitter and the glory of the corrida – the bullfight – another remnant of Spanish colonial history. Yet, Botero does not avoid the “hour of truth” – the death of a famous torero.

The exhibition also presented a section on everyday life in South America: women observed in the intimacy of their boudoir, street scenes, dance halls, and the suggestion of houses of ill repute. In a quiet picnic scene, Botero is capable of introducing a hint of menace, the foreboding of an impending disaster. Even in his still-life paintings, Botero creates a sense of uneasiness which is difficult to define: flies hover around pineapples, creating a putrid atmosphere; worms eat away a large pear, subverting its ripeness; and the sensuous modeling of a chocolate cake transforms it into a sinful object.

Botero’s superb craftsmanship may be most evident in his drawings, especially those executed in pastel. His pastels have a thoroughly finished look, a richness of color and structure rarely seen in modern art, and have been compared to the master drawings of Ingres, as well as the Vollard Suite and early etchings by Picasso.

Botero also found the opportunity to convert his ideas into bronze and marble sculpture, which have become a seminal element in his oeuvre. His monumental bronzes have been seen by perplexed strollers along the Champs Elysées in Paris, in front of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, and along Park Avenue in New York. The large figures transform their surroundings into a world of fantasy, as seen in Venice where his bronzes adorned the squares along the Grand Canal, or when his sensuous nudes were mirrored in the reflecting pools in front of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

Drawn from the collection of the artist and assembled over the last fifty years, the exhibition included favorite works that Botero was unable to part with, as well as pieces reacquired years after they left his possession. This exhibition provided a long overdue opportunity to investigate the complex workings of this talented artist not only by viewing some of his most renowned masterpieces, but also by studying his most personal works of art.

The exhibition was organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia.