Rethinking the Legacy of Colombia’s Most Famous Living Artist, Fernando Botero
In the 2013 book Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes, Phaidon listed Bogotá as one of 12 global art hubs of the new millennium. After decades of devastating conflict between leftist guerrillas and authoritarian paramilitary groups, as well as among drug cartels, peace and economic success have come to Colombia. A strong contemporary art scene has emerged in their wake, complete with international art stars like Oscar Murillo and major fairs like ARTBO.
Of the artists who came of age during Colombia’s turbulent 20th century, Fernando Botero (born in Medellín in 1932) is consistently cited as the most famous. His distinctive signature style—which inspired “Boterismo” and is as easily identifiable as that of Pollock or van Gogh—is marked by bulbous renderings of people and objects. For most of his career, he took as his subject matter Colombian society and family—as can be seen in House (1995), one of the many paintings and sculptures now on view at Opera Gallery in London—or voluminous female nudes, such as those in The Whore House (2009). Botero studied and worked in Europe and has often alluded to the influence of Old Masters like Velázquez and Piero della Francesca, including in his former belief that “[art] doesn’t have the capacity to change anything.”
Botero is something of a Colombian folk hero. The Museo Botero in Bogotá houses his work and private collection; he designed the label for a popular brand of rum. His work is both highly priced at auction and widely collected. Still, critics and contemporary artists have derided him for his attachment to figurative style and positive, or at least placid, portrayal of national life, even at a time when the country and its people were suffering from serious violence and instability. Ten years ago, he reconceived of his theory of art and its purpose, creating a series of works about Colombia’s long and bloody war; his next was about American torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. (Of this set, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Botero’s new works may seem as startling as if Norman Rockwell late in his career had begun painting My Lai massacre scenes.”) In downtown Medellín, there is an outdoor sculpture of a bird that was partially destroyed during a major, allegedly drug war-related explosion that occurred there in 1995. (That same year, Botero painted the serene The House with a Woman at the Door.) Honoring the artist’s wishes, the city has left the sculpture in place and unrepaired as a reminder of the violent past.
Miguel Ángel Rojas, a Colombian conceptual artist, has said, “The new generation of artists has moved away from more overtly political artwork and towards more personal proposals—art that is more related to form, poetics, and the nature of art.” Colombia’s contemporary art world may resist Botero’s influence, but poetic, formal art is, of course, just what Botero has been making all along.