In the 1970s Fernando Botero’s preoccupation with capturing volume led him to start producing huge bronze sculptures, such as this giant cat in his home city of Medellín, Colombia. Photograph: Age Fotostock/Alamy
Colombian painter and sculptor of voluminous figures that grace city centres the world over including Paris, Madrid and London. RIP
15 Apr 2023 – The rotund, colourful men and women painted and sculpted by Fernando Botero, who has died aged 91, made him perhaps the most popular Latin American artist of his generation and also one of the most commercially successful.
For years, art critics looked down on what the Colombian himself called his “fat people”, dismissing them as a trademark gimmick. But museums and collectors (including Hollywood celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Sylvester Stallone) snapped them up. His paintings and sculptures were so immediately identifiable for their bloated proportions that his work even gave rise to the term “Boterismo” to describe his aesthetic.
Botero argued that every true artist has to “deform reality” according to their way of seeing the world. He stressed that, despite the apparent ease with which he produced his prolific output, each work was the result of intense artistic imagination and effort.
Born in Colombia’s second city, Medellín, Fernando was the son of David Botero, a travelling salesman, who died when he was four, and Flora Angulo, who provided for her three children by working as a seamstress. Botero often said that the dedication she put into fabricating her creations was his earliest inspiration, and one of his later works was an affectionate portrait of her at her sewing machine.
An uncle helped pay for his education at a Jesuit school, but from an early age Botero took to drawing and painting to supplement his mother’s earnings. In his teens he drew illustrations for the cultural supplement of a Medellín newspaper, and soon afterwards he left for the capital, Bogotá, where one of his first oil paintings won him a large sum in prize money, allowing him to pursue his artistic education in Europe.
At first his work was greatly influenced by the school of Mexican muralists that included Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. As well as giving him an appetite for large public works and teaching him how to deal with volume in two dimensions, what he took from the artists was the fact that they considered depicting the life of Mexican peasants and the history of Latin America as being equally important as anything being produced in Europe or the US. In this, Botero’s confidence and self-awareness mirrored that of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel One Hundred Years of Solitude also gave themes of Colombia’s history a universal appeal.
In Europe in the early 1950s, Botero lived first in Madrid, then Paris, but perhaps the most formative period of his early career came in Florence, where he spent two years studying the Italian masters, especially those of the quattrocento such as Masaccio, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. He never tired of repeating that the most enduring lesson he learned from them was that, although their works appear realistic, they were imagined and processed by an individual sensibility.
By the early 60s Botero was living in New York, and already acquiring a considerable reputation. In 1961 his reworking of the Mona Lisa, entitled Mona Lisa, Age Twelve, in his typically rotund style, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art – the first of many acquisitions of his work by that institution.
In the 70s his preoccupation with capturing volume led him to start producing huge bronze sculptures of voluptuous women and sadly comical men, as well as giant cats and massive hands. These were often displayed in the city centres of Madrid or Paris. In the latter, a 1993 exhibition on the Champs-Ēlysées drew such large crowds that traffic ground to a halt. Botero’s reclining Broadgate Venus (1989) is on permanent display near Liverpool Street station in London.
Although internationally renowned, Botero never forgot his roots in Colombia. In 2000 he donated more than 100 of his works to a specially created Botero Museum in Bogotá, adding paintings from his personal collection by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and the impressionists. He gave another 100 of his works to the Museum of Antioquia in Medellín, as well as 23 of his monumental bronze sculptures.
It was what happened to one of these sculptures – his Dove of Peace in the Plaza de San Antonio, Medellín – that brought into sharp relief the contrast between his generally exuberant, cheerful view of life and the often harsher reality of Colombia. During an open air concert in the square in 1995, a bomb hidden beneath the sculpture by Farc guerrillas killed 30 people and injured more than 200. One of the artist’s sons, Fernando Botero Zea, was defence minister at the time, and the bomb was apparently intended as a protest by Farc against his refusal to enter peace talks with them. Botero’s response was to cast another, identical bird, and have it placed alongside the mutilated original with the names of the victims inscribed on its base.
He was, however, capable of addressing the crueller aspects of life, and did so in several paintings. In the 60s and 70s he produced a series of portraits of Latin American dictators in which the puffed-up size of the figures was a satirical reflection on their self-importance. Nor could he remain indifferent to the drug violence that made his home city at one time named the most dangerous in the world, especially when the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar dominated the trade. In 2004 Botero produced a series of paintings of him being hunted down and killed in 1993, as well as other scenes from the violence that gripped Colombia in the 90s.
Fernando Botero – The New York Times
The most controversial of his more political works was the series he produced in 2004-05 of around 80 paintings and 100 drawings depicting the torture by US forces of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. Botero donated the series to the library at the University of California, Berkeley, arguing that the subject matter was too serious for them to be sold to collectors.
Sales of his other work allowed him to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, with houses in Europe and the US, a yacht and what he called his “favourite toy”, a Rolls-Royce Phantom V. Across the years his work was shown in around 200 individual exhibitions, more than 100 of them in well-known museums and public art galleries. He continued to work 10 hours a day throughout his 80s, and declared to friends that he wanted to die painting, as Picasso did.
Botero’s first marriage, to Gloria Zea, ended in divorce in 1960, and his second wife, the Greek sculptor Sophia Vari, whom he married in the mid-70s, died in May. He is survived by three children, Fernando, Lina and Juan Carlos, from his first marriage. Another child, Pedro, from a relationship in the early 70s with Cecilia Zambrano, was killed in 1979 in a car accident in which Botero was also injured.
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