Art

Fernando Botero Became Famous Despite the Art World’s Scorn

Fernando Botero in Monaco on February 14, 2001. Photo by Alain Benainous / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Fernando Botero in Monaco on February 14, 2001. Photo by Alain Benainous / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Let’s get one thing straight: Liking is not very cool. But who cares about being cool? Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the Colombian artist’s curvaceous whimsies, his paintings and sculptures that capture a very singular, very rotund world. When I visited Bogotá a few years back, a stop at the Museo Botero was one of my personal highlights; the impressive institution houses countless works by the artist himself, as well as a bounty of and modern paintings that he donated from his own collection. And while I don’t have the cash to ever buy a Botero of my own, my living room bookshelf proudly sports a tiny replica of his iconic Big Hand (1976) sculpture. It greets me every morning, a pudgy wave hello to start my day.
Botero may be an international, populist favorite, but most North American critics won’t give him the time of day. That strange tension is at the heart of a new documentary, called Botero, by the director Don Millar. Botero traces the artist’s life story—from an impoverished childhood in Medellín in the 1940s to his current peak, at the age of 87, with a studio in Monaco and unimaginable wealth and success.
Sculptures by Fernando Botero in the Lustgarten, Berlin. Photo by Ilona Studre / ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Sculptures by Fernando Botero in the Lustgarten, Berlin. Photo by Ilona Studre / ullstein bild via Getty Images.

We follow a young Botero, the son of a seamstress and a salesman, as he consigned his first watercolor paintings to a local vendor more accustomed to selling tickets to the bullfight. He worked as a newspaper illustrator; fell in love with the draftsmanship of Italian artists; and eventually traveled and settled in Europe. Success did not come easily; the studios of his early days were almost heroically crummy. In the 1960s, he relocated for a time to New York City where, as he says in the documentary, he was treated like “a leper” due to the ongoing “dictatorship of abstract art.”
Still, Botero kept plugging away, arriving at the style he’s retained into the present day: puffy, almost cartoonish figures navigating a landscape where everything they encounter—animals, objects, foliage—is equally round and squishy. Importantly, he’s maintained throughout his career that he’s not painting fatness, but rather volume.
In 1959, Botero painted a version of the Mona Lisa as a 12-year-old that eventually ended up in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. He moved to Paris and suffered the tragic death of a child in an accident that he alchemized into a powerful series of paintings. In the 1970s, he took up sculpture with a passion, translating his two-dimensional experiments in what he calls “generosity” and “fullness” into epic, lovable bronze works. Throughout the decades, he remained committed to his style, despite criticisms. There are some, Botero says in Botero, who feel that “if art gives pleasure, it’s been prostituted, which is ridiculous…art has to give pleasure.”
Millar’s documentary taps Rosalind Krauss, a theorist and former editor of Artforum and October, to serve in the role of high-culture Botero-hater. She does not disappoint. Krauss finds the artist’s output “terrible” and likens his characters to “the Pillsbury Dough-Boy.” She refers to a major installation of Botero’s public works in the ’90s, on Park Avenue in New York, as “an invasion.” The problem, Krauss explains, is that “he’s speaking down to the viewer…I am a viewer who is not convinced, or amused.”
Despite such criticisms, the Colombian artist has made a career out of expanding his reach, and not just in terms of the market. This is a man who says, earnestly, that his goal is “to touch the heart of everyone in the world,” and that humor is important since it “creates a small door for the spectator…and makes it easy to enter the work.”
That’s not to say that every Botero painting is easy. He’s captured the drug-fueled political violence of Colombia in the 1980s and ’90s, including Masacre de Mejor Esquina (1997)—a work that shows a terror attack, with his iconically fat characters dead or dying. Following the revelations of torture by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, Botero launched into a harrowing series of paintings and drawings depicting that abuse in graphic detail. None of these works were for sale; they were donated to the Berkeley Art Museum in California. While he took these detours into weighty topicality, Botero still continued to create series depicting moments of simple joy: chubby cats, circus clowns, dancing lovers.
In many ways, it might be a mistake to interpret even the cheerier paintings as being uncomplicated. “I believe Botero is popular because, at a superficial glance, his paintings are easy to understand and don’t require any academic training to appreciate,” explained Patricia Tompkins, director of New York’s James Goodman Gallery. “It takes more study to truly appreciate Botero’s social criticism. The early ‘fat’ people depicted the ‘Haves’ in Colombia: the aristocracy, the Church, and the military.”
Pierre Levai, chairman of Marlborough Gallery, first met Botero in New York circa 1968. During their initial studio visit, he recalled seeing vibrant canvases: “still lifes, people walking in the street, dancing, eating and drinking together. Very human paintings.” What he was doing was not popular—“he was definitely not in tune” with trends, Levai said—but Botero’s debut exhibition with Marlborough sold out. And so began a decades-long relationship that continues to this day.
Levai blames American critics’ reluctance to embrace the Colombian superstar partly on cultural prejudice, what he sees as a “a kind of disdain for what came from Latin America.” Personally, that seems a less likely culprit than an elitist tendency to scorn what seems too popular—as if accessibility is the same thing as a craven desire to please, at all costs. Regardless, Levai has been struck by the ongoing scarcity of critical attention that Botero receives in New York, for instance, as opposed to Europe. A late 2018 exhibition of new work in the city was greeted by silence, he said, in terms of media coverage; when the same show traveled to Madrid, and later Barcelona, it was lauded with articles in major newspapers like El Pais.
And yet there’s a difference between critical and popular attention, of course. As Levai noted, everyday comparisons to Botero are commonplace, having entered the collective imagination. Someone of a certain physique might well be described as “looking like a Botero,” he said—in the same way that Rubenesque might be a comprehensible adjective, even for those who aren’t familiar with .
While there are subtexts floating beneath the surface, it’s true that most of Botero’s paintings and sculptures reach out to the viewer; they want to be admired, delighted in, chuckled over. “I think a lot of people are somewhat intimidated by contemporary art because they don’t ‘get it,’” said Botero director Don Millar. “This isn’t the case with Botero, which allows him to reach far beyond salons, galleries, and classrooms. I think his use of humor is something the world could use a little more of, especially now. I was surprised to learn that Botero is not at all interested in the views of critics and academics—something that does, I imagine, aggravate their attitude toward his work. He is playing a much different game.”
Indeed, for every Rosalind Krauss spitting on Botero’s populist appeal, there are a thousand earnest followers—from South America to China—who find his work delightful and life-affirming, rather than kitschy and unrigorous. Time will tell, but I suspect that art history will be kind to Botero. “In spite of the ignorance of the so-called intelligentsia,” Levai said, “he went everywhere.”
Scott Indrisek is a contributing writer for Artsy.

Correction: An earlier version of this article used the wrong spelling of Colombia.