Let's first address the metaphorical elephant in the room. Literally, the amply endowed woman, wrought in bronze and reclining on the east lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts, smoking a cigarette, who weighs about 1 ton less than the average 5-ton elephant.
The sculpture has caused some consternation. Letters to the editor of this newspaper have decried its apparent celebration of two of today's most politically incorrect vices, gluttony and smoking.
To those offended viewers who addressed us publicly, I say thank you. Generating a discussion about art is always a good thing. Divergent opinions are welcome. I ask only that they be informed.
Which takes us back to the woman in question and her creator, the Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Botero, 77, is famous for his oversized portraits, and 100 of his paintings, drawings and sculptures fill the museum's Hazel Hough Wing (and part of the exterior grounds) in a large exhibition titled "The Baroque World of Fernando Botero." It isn't a retrospective because it doesn't span the breadth of his 50-plus-year career. Most of the works were created within the past 20 years. But as he has not deviated from his signature style in decades, we don't need that sort of chronology to understand his art. And to appreciate it.
Botero has received scant attention from the critical art world in decades. That indifference is more damning than excoriation since it implies that the art is unworthy even of negative consideration.
His commercial success may have contributed to those dismissive shrugs but can't totally explain them. In getting a close look at this collection, I think some of his problems have to do with timing and even more with his style.
Botero was a Latin American artist before anyone was much interested in Latin American art. (Not even Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo.) For one thing, the term was and continues to be too vast. It's misleading, much like abstract expressionism. Comparing Botero with the Caribbean-influenced Latin American artist Wifredo Lam, whose work we saw in 2009 at the Salvador Dali Museum, is like comparing Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Not much is learned about any of them.
It is more telling to discuss Botero in relation to Colombia, from which most of his thematic inspiration emanates. He grew up in Medellin, the second-largest city in Colombia. Today it is generally and unfortunately associated in our collective consciousness with the powerful Medellin drug cartel of the 1980s and 1990s. That was a blip in the city's long history, the diverse industries that fuel its economy, and the cultural amenities that make it a first-rate city.
Botero didn't benefit much from his city's economic strength or educational opportunities. His father died when Botero was 4 and his mother supported the family as best she could, but they were definitely financially underprivileged. His early raw talent as an artist sprang from his own inspiration and life around him in the Spanish Colonial town. An uncle sent him to bullfighting school as a young teen but exposure to a book of 19th and 20th century European art he happened upon changed his life. He used money won in an art competition to finance a trip to Spain to take art classes. He spent most of his time in the Prado Museum studying the old masters, doing the same during stays in Paris and Italy. That was his fundamental education.
He was in Mexico in 1956 when he had his Light Bulb Moment. While drawing a still life that included a mandolin, he fooled around with its composition, reducing the size of its sound hole and altering the instrument's proportions. That, he has said, led to a breakthrough in the way he would deal with volume. That work isn't in this show but a similar Still Life with Mandolin from 1998 is. The work itself won't startle you. In a way it references Picasso's early cubist period when he was playing with skewed perspectives and volumes in his own genius way. Botero's colors are also interesting — the lemony wood of the mandolin and shutters with the purple cloth, green cherries and wine so red it looks like tomato juice. The light source, too, is odd: There's no explanation for it, the fully lit table surrounded by dark walls, scant acknowledgment of the light entering from a crack in the shuttered windows.
Botero began generating buzz, especially during time spent in the late 1950s in New York, where he flirted with a gestural style associated with artists working there, often called the New York School. In several paintings, we can see why. He combines his breakthrough of exaggerated form with subjects invoking past masters such as Velazquez. Botero paints in the then-fashionable technique of deliberately visible brushstrokes. (It's called gestural because you can see the hand — or gesture — of the artist.) In 1961, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of them, titled Mona Lisa, Age 12, for its permanent collection. Botero was 27. That painting is also absent from the show but you'll find three paintings from that period that will explain his sudden celebrity. Girl on a Horse and The Boy from Vallecas are especially powerful and, even 50 years later, startling in their originality.
Both are homages to characters in Velazquez's famous 17th century paintings of the Spanish royal family. Botero, like Velazquez, paints a young girl and boy as children wrapped in adult accoutrements. For Velazquez, it was costume: The Infanta Margarita in Las Meninas was dressed as was custom in the strictured court outfit of an adult. Botero's little girl has Margarita's elaborate hairdo, pink hair bow and facial features. But they're compressed into a broad face. She sits on a pony that has the psychological scariness of a Francis Bacon work. Or, more probably, Goya, a much earlier master.
Botero was on to something new hewn from older inspirations.
By the late 1960s, his style had further evolved toward a less gestural technique. He began painting smooth canvases with subtly integrated colors. The technique reflected his love of Renaissance and Baroque art. The difference is that Botero's oil paintings don't have a translucent sheen so prized by his master mentors. They're flat, much like that famous movement of the 1960s, pop art. Look at his more direct interpretation of the Infanta, After Velazquez from 1996. She is closer to Violet Beauregarde's blueberry moment in Willy Wonka than the sweet little 17th century princess. But there is a certain trapped feeling about her just as there is in Las Meninas. She just looks more aware of her situation in Botero's painting.
Still, he's not easily categorized. He became a representational and figurative painter who chose throwback subjects of domestic life when everyone wanted abstraction. His "fat" people (his description) were painted without condescension when everyone expected irony or social commentary. His commentaries, when he makes them, are usually about situations rather than life choices such as overeating.
So we do a disservice to Botero in trying to insert him into one of those categories that historians and critics (people like me) tend to rely on in discussing art.
Botero is both of and out of his time. He paints of a life pretty much gone — the village atmosphere of his childhood in Medellin. He interprets those scenes in a modern way though he references early art movements in his use of collapsing perspective and portraits of individuals that also serve as types. The "baroqueness" so often associated with Botero comes from the lushness of his works — their colors and extravagant details as well as, yes, the generous figures of his subjects. Ever notice how roly-poly some of Rubens' or Leonardo's guys and gals look by today's standards of beauty?
Usually Botero uses the lush scenarios to suggest oppressiveness. A pile of bananas on a chair in a Botero still life is backed by the same forest of plantains in his portraits of a cardinal, political figures and grand dames, improbable in each case and stifling. Lush, too, are the piles of bodies with dismembered limbs in the ghastly 20.15 Hours (Massacre), which has a carefully formal composition that belies its story of violence in a South American bodega.
That's Botero's main MO, to portray life and people as he remembers them: the village rhythms, the major and minor dramas, the notable and anonymous as they live and die. That he can do so without nostalgia or sentimentality is remarkable. Or without caricature.
The Bath, for example, could have been a joke. A nude woman prepares for a bath in a tiny bathroom whose toilet would collapse if she tried to use it. You know there's going to be a gigantic overflow when she steps into the filling tub. And what about those heels she's wearing on feet too tiny to support her? Yet when we look, we don't laugh. She stares impassively into a mirror, not shirking from our voyeurism.
The supersizing of a subject in art can also be a way to imply heroic status. But none of Botero's cast of characters seems meant for personal greatness, even those who are obvious personages. Saints, sinners, rich or poor, famous or anonymous, they are all monumental in the same way, meant to fill a canvas or round out a sculpture. Start there and you'll begin to understand and appreciate Botero.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.