BOTERO. You know his work, even if the name Fernando Botero doesn’t reside on the tip of your tongue. You’ve seen his paintings–so distinct in style, like the one above–and his sculptures too. His human (and animal) figures are chubby and rotund. Rubenesque with a pump-up-the-volume Latin American flair. Whether you love his style or loathe it, the fact is his art ‘speaks’ to people around the world. I’ve joined the LOVE IT camp, ever since seeing the documentary BOTERO at the recently-wrapped Dallas International Film Festival. Count me in as an enthusiastic admirer of one of the most important artists living and working today.
At 87, Botero has barely slowed down. Today, for the most part, he paints at his studio in Monaco and sculpts in Pietrasanta, Italy, the small town where Michelangelo once lived, drawn to that particular part of the world by the bronze foundries that have been in operation there for the last several thousand years. Botero stopped painting for a year to learn sculpting. In 1973, he made his first giant, volumized sculpture. A decade later, when he was 51 and already a successful artist, he bought a house in Tuscany to be closer to the foundry that casts his sculptures. What followed were exhibitions in renowned outdoor locations, including: along the Champs-Elysee in Paris in 1992-93; on Park Avenue in New York City in 1993; on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1996. The exhibitions drew huge enthusiastic crowds. In Paris: “Children climb all over them,” reported The New York Times. “Teenagers rub their round surfaces; blind people come to feel them.”
Botero’s success had an unlikely beginning in Medellin, Colombia, back when it was a clean little provincial city isolated by the Andes mountains. His mother was a seamstress and his father a mule-travelling salesman who died when he was four. Fernando Botero was born in 1932, seventeen years before Pablo Escobar, another poor local boy who would grow up to amass a fortune as the leader of the Medellin Cartel. At one point the cartel supplied an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. Escobar died the day after his 44th birthday, shot to death on a rooftop in Medellin, an event immortalized by Botero in a painting. Botero said–and continues to say, “Art can’t change things, but it can leave a testimony.”
Most of Botero’s art is playful. Humorous and happy. But in 1995, two years after Escobar’s death, anti-government terrorists placed 22 pounds of dynamite beneath Botero’s “Bird of Peace” statue, which he’d donated to the city of Medellin. The explosion took place during an outdoor concert, killing 30 and injuring over 200. Botero insisted the damaged statue be left in place with a plaque at its base listing the names of the bombing victims; five years later he donated an identical statue to be placed opposite the damaged one.
As a fourteen-year-old boy, Botero enrolled in a school for bullfighters, a popular sport in Medellin. He drew bullfighting scenes in his spare time. When he sold one of his watercolors for two dollars, he never looked back. At sixteen, while in high school, he worked as an illustrator for the local newspaper. By nineteen, he’d won $7,000 in a national art contest, and he used the money to study the paintings in Europe for three years. His first stop was Madrid, and it was there, in a bookstore’s window, that he saw the picture of a painting that mesmerized him. That would change his life. That would send him on the road to discovering his personal style. Today, whether they be paintings or sculptures, his distinctive style is known as Boterismo.
The painting that mesmerized him was by an Italian Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca. A voluptuous fresco. Immediately Botero decided to travel to Florence, Italy. In Italian painting, he discovered volume.
“An artist is attracted to certain types of forms without knowing why. Only later do you attempt to rationalize it or even to justify it.” Botero
In the fall of 2015, Botero in China debuted in Beijing at the National Museum of China: 81 large format paintings and 15 large format drawings from his personal collection. Canadian filmmaker Don Millar attended the opening and found himself surprised by Botero’s popularity and appeal in a culture so different from his own. Additionally, he was intrigued by the man himself: calm, enigmatic and vaguely amused at the frenzy surrounding his visit. The idea for a documentary was born.
Botero’s success didn’t happen overnight, even after he discovered the style of painting that propelled him forward. When he ran out of money in Europe, he returned to Colombia, where he met and married his first wife. A brief stay in Mexico City introduced him to the use of explosive color, which he put into his own paintings. In the 1960s he moved to New York City with $200 in his pocket. It was a difficult time. He was divorced and a father of three young children. Critics disparaged his work. By chance, Dorothy Miller, a critic and a curator at the Modern Museum of Art, saw one of his paintings and declared, “That is modern art.” She bought Mona Lisa, Age 12 for the museum, and his career took off.
“I don’t paint fat women. . .What I paint are volumes. When I paint a still life, I also paint with volume; if I paint an animal it is volumetric; a landscape as well.” Botero to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, 2014
Botero has remained devoted to his roots in Colombia. He spends about a month of every year at his home in Medellin. In 2000, he donated hundreds of millions of dollars of art–his own and that of other famous artists–to the Museo de Antioquia in Medellin and the Botero Museum in Bogota.
I’m not so sure Botero is correct when he says that art can’t change things. Medellin is now a cultural mecca for tourists. Pablo Escobar, drug cartel kingpin, died at 44. Fernando Botero, artist, is still going strong at 87. Still giving back to Medellin and to the world.