As we are in the middle of holiday celebrations I thought I would lighten my blog with an artist whose works always bring a smile to my face. He is very popular, extremely talented and has a style of his own which is instantly recognisable. Although one would not compare his works with those of Raphael or Titian, they are truly a joy to behold. My featured artist today is the Colombian, Fernando Botero. I will intersperse his life story with some of his paintings and I have concentrated on his version of some of the world’s greatest works by the Masters of the past.
Fernando Botero Angulo was born on April 19th 1932. His birthplace was Medellin, an industrial town situated high up in the Colombian Andes. He was the second of three sons of David Botero and Flora Angulo. His mother was a seamstress and his father was a salesman and due to the mountainous terrain of his home region, had to travel around on horseback. In 1936, when Fernando was just four years of age, his father died of a heart attack and one of his uncles became the main man in his early life. In 1938 he starts his education at a local primary school. He proved to be a very able pupil, so much so that at the end of his primary school education, he gained a scholarship to the Jesuit high school in Medellin.
Whereas young boys in Britain dream of being a soccer star, Fernando’s dream was to become a bull fighter and at the age of twelve, as well as his normal schooling, his uncle had him enrolled at a bull fighting school. During his time at school he began to show a love of drawing and painting with watercolours and his first watercolour work was one of a bull-fighting scene. His artwork improved steadily and in 1948 he, along with other aspiring artists of the regions, held a group exhibition of their work. The following year he begins to draw illustrations for the Sunday supplement of the Medellin newspaper, El Combiano. He finished high school in 1949, aged 17, and enrolled at the Liceo de Marinilla de Antioquia in the neighbouring town of Marinilla. To attend this college he had to part fund his education and he did that by continuing with his illustrative work for local newspapers. He completed his education in 1950 and after a few months working as a stage-set designer he moves to Bogotá. He has been slowly building up a collection of his own works and in 1951 he exhibited a mix of watercolours, drawings and oil paintings at the Leo Matiz Gallery, some of which were sold. Buoyed up by the sale of his work he takes himself off to the coast that summer and spends the time relaxing and painting.
In 1952 he had a second exhibition of his work which included all of his previous summer’s work. The exhibition was an outstanding success and all his paintings were sold and he was better off by $ 2000. His coffers were further filled by 7000 pesos which he received for the Second Prize at the Ninth Salon of Colombian Artists held in Bogotá. Now with all the money he had accrued he could realise his dream of going to Europe and studying the paintings of the European Masters. He and some of his artist friends set sail aboard an Italian liner bound for Barcelona where he arrived during late autumn. After a short two-day stay in the Catalonian capital he went on to Madrid and enrolled at Madrid’s academy of art, the Academia de San Fernando. He was somewhat disillusioned with the teaching he received at the academy and remained there for just two semesters. Botero spent most of his time whilst in Madrid making many visits to the Prado where he saw the works of the great artists of the past such as Titian, Rubens, Goya and his all-time favourite, Velazquez. He made a number of copies of the originals which he managed to sell. In 1986 he completed a self portrait dressed as Velazquez.
Over the next few years Botero travelled around Europe. In 1953 he lived in Paris, with his friend the film director, Ricardo Irragarri in the Place des Voges. Although Botero falls into the category of a Modern artist he favoured the Louvre over the establishments exhibiting modern works. It was at the Louvre that he became interested in early Italian art. At the end of the summer of 1953, Botero and Irragarri moved to Florence. For Botero it was love at first sight and he decided to make Florence his home, set up his studio in the Via Panicale and also enrolled at the Academia San Marco where he learnt all about fresco painting and went to art history lectures centring around 15th century Italian art, the time often referred to as the Quattrocentro. In Florence he was then able to study the works of the Renaissance masters. He also extensively travelled around Italy on his motorbike visiting Arezzo, Padua, Siena and Venice and at every stopping-off place he would visit the local museums and seek out the works of the great Italian painters such as Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Uccello, Carpaccio, Giorgione and Titian.
In all, Botero remained in Europe for four years before returning to Bogotá in March 1955. He did not return empty-handed for during his four year European sojourn he had been continually painting and on his arrival back in Colombia he was excited to exhibit these works at the National Library in Bogotá. His last exhibition of work in 1952 had been a sell-out and so he had high hopes for this new set of paintings. Alas, it was a total anti-climax. The people who came to the exhibition did not like what they saw. They wanted to see more modern works of art and Botero was offering a more classical and academic style of paintings. None of his works sold. Botero was now in desperate need for money and, for a ten week period, he even took on a job as a car tyre salesman to earn enough to feed and house himself. He then reverted to earning money by his illustrative work for magazines.
A turning point in his life came in December 1956 when he married Gloria Zea, the daughter of the liberal political leader Germán Zea Hernández. The couple moved to Mexico where Botero believed his modern art would attain the same fame that the Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had found. The couple went on to have three children, Fernando born in 1957, Lina born in 1958, and Juan Carlos born in 1960. It was also in this year that Fernando Botero first produced a work which incorporated his own inimitable style.
It was during his short stay in Mexico that Botero produced a work which was entitled Still Life with Mandolin. This was his first work in which we saw what was termed his “puffed-up” style. In this painting Botero had experimented with scale and volume. In the work we can see how he has puffed-up the size of the instrument and altered the true size of the hole in the instrument, out of which resonates the sound. This unusual enlargement of shapes and people in his works of art became known as Boterismo. When asked why he always painted fat people, he denied it. Botero was a figurative painter but one could not label him as a realistic painter and although his paintings may be focused on his depictions, they could not be further from reality. It is not just the people we see in his works of art who are voluminous, all the inanimate items depicted also took on this over-sized quality. His deformation of the people and items he depicted in his work was a transformation into his own imitable style. One cannot compare his work to those of his favourite painters Velazquez and Raphael as that would be like comparing apples with oranges. However there is something about his work which I find totally beguiling. I am captivated by his over-large people. It is a type of art which makes you smile and surely that cannot be bad.
Botero and his wife left Mexico and returned to Bogotá. In 1957 he had his first solo exhibition in the United States, in Washington DC. And it was whilst he was at the exhibition he was able to study the works of the leading American contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He returned to Bogotá via Mexico, fully invigorated by what he had seen in America. He returned to his homeland and was an artistic hero. In 1958 he was appointed professor of painting at the Bogotá Academy of Art. He had his work exhibited at the Gres Gallery in Washington, owned by Tania Gres whom he had met the year before. A second solo exhibition of his paintings at her gallery was staged in 1960. More and more of his work found favour among American collectors and he spent more time away from home in the United States. He realised that to progress as an artist he had to move to America. This may have put a strain on his relationship with his wife as in 1960 his marriage to Gloria was dissolved.
Botero moved to America and set up his studio in an apartment in Greenwich Village during the winter of 1960. The sales of his work slowed down and he was living a frugal and somewhat lonely existence. Botero was a fighter and his determination carried him through these inauspicious and difficult times when money was tight, rejection of his work was the norm and his paintings often received unfavourable reviews from the art critics and his New York colleagues who belonged to the Abstract Expressionist school. However in 1961 he was given the Guggenheim International award for his painting entitled The Battle of the Arch-Devil and his big break came in 1963. The Metropolitan Museum in New York had on display Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa and to counter this attraction the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art decided to buy Botero’s 1959 work entitled Mona Lisa, Aged 12 and had the large square canvas (211cms x 195cms) hung in the foyer of their museum. It caused a sensation and overnight Botero became famous in the city. One thing led to another and soon Botero was the toast of the city and was introduced to the contemporary artists whose work he had always admired such as Pollock, Rothko, Fritz Kline and de Kooning. With fame came fortune and he moved from his small studio to a much larger one in New York’s Lower East Side.
In 1964, Fernando Botero married for the second time. His wife was Cecilia Zambrano. In 1971 he rented a flat in Paris and commuted between the French capital and New York. The couple had a son, Pedro in 1974 but a year after their son’s birth, the couple separated. Sadly Pedro was killed in a car accident in 1979 in which Botero himself was severely injured. As the years passed, sculpture gained great importance in Botero’s life. In 1983 Botero moved to Pietrasanta, a Tuscan town in Italy which was famous for its foundries and numerous marble quarries. He was so taken up by his sculpture work that he spent several months each year in Italy. However he never abandoned his painting and it was during this period that he turned out many works depicting bull-fighting which gained many favourable reviews and were much in demand for exhibitions.
His fame continued to grow and in 2005 he completed his most controversial series of over 80 paintings and drawings which depicted stylized renditions of prisoner abuse by American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Although these works had been exhibited in Europe, it was not until 2007 that they had been shown in the United States, with the exception of a small private show at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. On January 29th 2007, the exhibition Botero: Abu Ghraib opened at the Doe Library of the University of California at Berkeley. Forty-three works from the series were on show, each depicted the torture in Abu Ghraib. The exhibition was sponsored by the Centre for Latin American Studies. These were powerful and disturbing depictions and the prisoners’ large bodies dominated the large canvases. People who looked at the works often spoke of how they too felt the pain and empathized with the people who suffered the dreadful conditions of their captivity.
Botero has never established a settled lifestyle and seems to be always on the move travelling between New York, his summer house in Colombia, and his apartments in New York, and Paris as well as his house in Pietrasanta. Fernando Botero, who will be 82 in April 2014, is currently married to his third wife, Sophia Vari, a highly respected and talented Greek sculptor.
If you would like to read more about Fernando Botero and his art, I can recommend you buy the small, well illustrated book simply entitled Botero. The author is Mariana Hanstein.