Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
Examined Life
Further Materials
Slush Pile
Reading Room

Dispatches from the present


Humanity at Large


Growing up as I did in a decidedly nonartistic family, there were only two artists for my Colombian mother and grandmother—Gabriel García Márquez in literature and Fernando Botero in painting. They were simply part of the texture of my childhood growing up, as Celia Cruz is for Cubans and Selena is for Mexicans. (You can learn a lot about Colombian snobbery, as both a vice and a virtue, from the fact we turn painters and novelists into pop stars as often as singers.) My enthusiasm for both Gabo and Botero not only persisted but intensified as I started to study them more seriously in my teen years. I remain a proud fanatic of both to this day.

All through college my dorm room was decorated with a large framed print of Botero’s El estudio (1984), always placed conspicuously opposite the entrance as a conversation piece. Looking at it we’re overwhelmed by the magnificent backside of an enormous nude woman, her titanic thighs improbably held up by the pointed heels of some stilettos. Past her the artist paints himself painting her, peeking out from around his canvas like Velázquez in Las Meninas. And (this was always my favorite part of the bit I’d perform for my bemused guests) the painting’s best Easter egg is its most subtle: look closely at the artist’s chubby little self-portrait, and you’ll notice that he has a mole in practically the same spot on the cheek of his face as she has on the cheek of her ass. The picture’s peculiar combination of elegance, bawdiness, sensuality and erudition isn’t just a perfect example of Botero’s style—for me, it was a model of the sensibility with which I’ve strived to live my life.

The other day, Botero’s family announced that the great artist had died of pneumonia at the age of 91. This sad news put me in mind of a documentary I’d watched about him just a few months before—a little indie puff piece directed by somebody called Don Millar, who’d evidently purchased access to the (apparently quite extensive) Botero clan with the goodwill won by his head-patting approach. But even though this is in many ways the sort of schmoozy, hagiographic, portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-global-success documentary that one half-suspects was concocted to inflate the price of their work in some upcoming auction, you should watch it anyway. You might learn a few things—though the movie tastefully refuses to ever quite explain point-blank why, famously, Botero makes all his people and objects so comically fat.

The film offers solid biographical confirmation of what I’d long deduced from looking at the pictures: that Botero’s greatness lay in his role as a kind of bridge, or a network of bridges, between the modernist avant-gardes, the Renaissance, the costumbrista folk art of Latin America and modern pop-cultural sensibility. Botero’s organic connection to the folkways of the peasantry and townspeople who inhabit that same podunk Colombia my grandma and Gabo are from is obvious enough; but he seems also to have imbibed German Expressionist woodcuts and Picasso portraits at a very young age, despite his lower-middle- to working-class background. (If I were a betting man, I’d guess the reason is clearly explained by an anecdote the doc quickly glosses over: how he got kicked out of high school at eighteen for writing a Marxish review of Picasso in a little magazine. For the sort of people who read and write for those magazines, as a great intellectual historian once told me from his childhood experience, “modernism was our great tradition.”)

The Renaissance only came later, when he scraped together the money to live a pauper’s life traveling around Europe as a young man studying the Quattrocento and the Spanish Baroque. I already knew from my eye that Velázquez was in the mix, but the doc is particularly clarifying about Piero della Francesca’s influence. Ostensibly della Francesca’s portraits depict rich patrons or religious scenes, but in fact they’re quite often full of hilarious side details and genre-paintingesque local color: in one, for instance, some dude in the background of Christ’s baptism is giving himself a little scrub in the same river. Such flourishes immediately reveal the artist’s true subject to be the messy totality of early modern Italian social life, given an order it doesn’t have in the real world by careful use of sacred history and geometric arrangement. Not a similar but an identical motive underlies everything in Botero’s own work. And why wouldn’t it? Provincial existence in fifteenth-century Italy and in twentieth-century Colombia (or in China, for that matter—no wonder they adore Botero there, too) aren’t nearly so different as is often supposed; and what are Southern Europeans, anyway, but Latinos with pretensions?

Admirably, the doc gives voice to some of Botero’s haters, but briskly sails past them. And rightly so, I think. His greatness is self-evident; he has glided seemingly effortlessly (but really with an oxlike work ethic, in the face of personal tragedy) into art history. He’s one of the few painters whose instantly recognizable style is genuinely popular among ordinary people all over the world—and this despite that style’s deep roots in both classical tradition and modern experimentalism. Yet interestingly, despite one interviewed critical theorist’s attempts to paint Botero as a capitalist artist and his art as popular only because it’s a recognizable brand, the film depicts several important ways in which Botero openly defied the logic of the art market, making a habit of giving away his pictures for free to good causes on condition that they be on public display for anyone to come see. Most notably, he donated not only an archive of most of his important paintings but his private collection of modern painters to help establish two top-notch art museums in Bogotá and his native Medellín—a conscious effort to aid the city’s recovery after the devastating cartel wars and U.S. imperial adventures of the Eighties and Nineties. Going to those museums years ago was how I came to a more than superficial understanding of who Botero actually is as a painter, and I was happy to see them given center stage in the film.

Far from being a McArtist whose work does nothing but support a market of speculative assets for billionaire collectors, Botero is if anything an artist of world democracy, his work a merger of the provincial and the cosmopolitan, of mass appeal and formal rigor, of immediate effectiveness and historic depth. His cult of fatness (“el volumen,” as he intones with hilarious seriousness) is to me a sort of humanism, an attempt to capture primal qualities of sensuality and growth—sometimes to poke fun at his subjects’ silly humanity, other times to depict the horror of the destruction of living (jiggling) flesh before its time. Always it is about the power, the dignity and the beauty of human beings, in all their solemnity and frivolousness. The statues of thick, naked women—posing in heels, lounging lazily with cigarettes in their delicate hands—that he’s erected in public parks all over the planet, so that small children can climb them and young lovers can hold hands in their shadows, are a democratic art, yes—but more to the point, an art of gratitude toward the abundance of our lives and their possibilities. The worship, one might say, of fertility—in Botero, art returns to its roots, in the Venus of Willendorf.