Known for his enormous metal sculptures and vibrantly colorful paintings of robust human and animal shapes, Colombian artist Fernando Botero (born 1932) was one of the most popular modern artists.
Fernando Botero was born in Medellin, in the Colombian Andes, on April 19, 1932. His parents, David and Flora Angulo de Botero, had been raised in the remote highlands of the Andes. His father, a traveling salesman who journeyed on horseback to outlying areas of the city, died when Botero was four, and his mother supported the family as a seamstress.
The second of three boys, Botero attended a Jesuit secondary school on a scholarship starting at age 12. His uncle also enrolled him in matador school, which he attended for two years, and the images in his first drawings come from the world of bullfighting (a watercolor of a matador is his first known work). Until he discovered a book of modern art at the age of 15 he "didn't even know this thing called art existed," he says.
In 1948 Botero decided he wanted to become an artist and first exhibited his work in a joint show in his native town. He began working at El Colombiano, Medellin's leading newspaper, illustrating the Sunday magazine. At this time a period of civil unrest began in Colombia, and there was a low tolerance for nonconformity and radicalism. Some of Botero's teachers began to express disapproval of his work, and he received several warnings about nudity in his newspaper illustrations. In response he published an article called "Picasso and Nonconformity in Art" and was subsequently expelled from the school. He completed his secondary education at the Liceo de la Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, graduating in 1950, and continued to publish articles on modern art.
Joined Avant Garde
Botero worked for two months for a traveling theater group as a set designer, then moved to Bogota, where he met some avant-garde intellectuals and artists and was influenced by the work of such Mexican muralists as Diego Rivera, Josè Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Botero's large watercolor paintings, such as 1949's Donna Che Piange (The Crying Woman), are from this period. In 1951 he had his first one-man exhibition—consisting of 25 oils, drawings, watercolors, and gouaches—at the Galerias de Arte Foto-Estudio Leo Matiz. All the pieces sold, and he took the proceeds from the exhibit and moved to a small coastal town to work.
In 1952 he moved back to Bogota and mounted his second show, which earned him 7,000 pesos. He won an additional 7,000 pesos when his 1952 painting Sulla Costa (On the Coast) took second place in the IX Salon Annual de Artistas Colombianos, sponsored by the Bogota National Library. He used these funds to move to Europe and study art. He spent a year in Madrid, enrolled in the San Ferdinando Academy, and earned a living by copying paintings by Francisco de Goya, Titian, Diego Velasquez, and Tintoretto and selling them to tourists. From there he moved to Paris, where he spent a summer studying old masters at the Louvre. From 1953 to 1954 he lived in Italy, attending the San Marco Academy in Florence, where he studied fresco techniques and copied works by Andrea del Castagno and Giotto, in addition to creating his own oil paintings. He studied with Roberto Longhi, who further stimulated his enthusiasm for the Italian Renaissance.
Developed Distinctive Style
In 1955, he returned to Bogota with his new paintings, 20 of which he exhibited at the National Library. His work was harshly criticized for not having a style of its own. Few paintings sold, and Botero was compelled to work at non-artistic employment. This included an attempt to sell automobile tires and a position doing magazine layout. At the end of the year, Botero married Gloria Zea and they moved to Mexico City, where their son, Fernando, was born.
In Mexico City Botero began developing his own style. In 1956, while at work on a painting called Still Life with Mandolin, he had a revelation that would change his art. As he sketched a mandolin, he placed a small dot where a larger sound hole should have been, making the mandolin suddenly seem enormous. He began to experiment with size and proportion in his work and eventually developed his trademark style. The people and objects in his paintings were inflated, giving them presence, weight, and a round sensuality. This style, combined with his paintings' Latin American-influenced flatness, bright colors and boldly outlined shapes, made him one of the 20th Century's most recognizable artists.
Gained Worldwide Recognition
Botero's art began to gain recognition outside Latin America. In 1957 he went to New York City, where the abstract expressionist movement was thriving. On that trip, he sold most of the paintings he exhibited at the Pan-American Union in Washington, D.C. He returned to Bogota in 1958, and his daughter, Lina, was born. He became a professor of painting at the Bogota Academy of Art, a post he held for two years. By this time he was renowned as one of the country's most promising artists.
He designed a portion of the illustrations for the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez's La Siesta del Martes, and the work also appeared in an important Colombian daily newspaper, El Tiempo. Amid some controversy, his painting Camera degli Sposi (The Bride's Chamber) won first prize in that year's Colombian salon and was exhibited the same year at the Gres Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Washington show was hugely successful, with nearly all his work selling on the first day. His work was also shown in 1958's Guggenheim International Award show in New York.
In 1959, following more exposure to abstract expressionism in the United States and a phase of personal tumult during which his marriage was dissolving, Botero's style began to change. He started painting in a monochromatic palette and using looser brushstrokes. His El Nino de Vallecas, painted in this style, was not as popular as his other work at a third Washington exhibit in October 1960. His son, Juan Carlos, was born that year, and Botero was nominated to represent Colombia at the II Mexico Biennial Exhibition.
In 1960, Botero moved to Greenwich Village in New York and began working at a feverish pace. His work, which celebrated volume and voluptuousness, received a generally tepid American response at a time when flatness was the craze, although in 1961 the Museum of Modern Art did buy his painting Monna Lisa all'età di Dodici Anni (Mona Lisa, Age 12). Despite the cool response, he kept painting work that was outside the mainstream. His 1962 exhibit at The Contemporaries Gallery in New York was harshly attacked in what Botero felt was a personal manner. In 1964, he married a second time, to Cecilia Zambrano.
Botero became fascinated by the art of the Flemish master Rubens and created a number of paintings inspired by him. By 1965, his painting had acquired greater sophistication. He began to concentrate on forms rather than individual brushstrokes, and the surfaces of objects appeared almost sculptural. His figures used subtle tones and were both monumental and plastic. He began to apply thin pastel-colored glazes to his canvases.
In 1966, Botero's work had its first European exhibition in Baden-Baden, Germany. He had begun to receive more American recognition, yet he felt at once that he was more tuned into the European sensibility. From 1966 to 1975, he divided his time among Europe, New York, and Colombia. On a visit to Germany, he became enamored of Albrecht Dürer's work, which inspired him to create a series of large charcoal drawings, "Dureroboteros," mimicking the German artist's famous paintings. He also painted works in which he interpreted the styles of Manet and Bonnard. In 1969, he mounted his first Paris exhibition and had become a full-fledged member of Europe's avant-garde by the early 1970s. His third son, Pedro, was born in New York in 1970.
During this period, Botero's painting moved beyond its focus on sensuous, sculptural, Latin forms and became harder and more sparkling, with an underlying darkness. An example from this period includes War, with its images of corpses. In 1973, he moved from New York to Paris and began to sculpt. His son, Pedro, was killed in an automobile accident in which the artist was also seriously injured, losing a finger and some motion in his right arm. Botero had painted his son repeatedly and continued to do so after the boy's death, working him into various paintings. Three years after his son's death, he dedicated a suite of galleries housed in Medellin's art museum to his son's memory. He and his second wife separated in 1975.
Sculpting and Politics
Botero devoted himself to sculpting from 1975 to 1977, putting his painting temporarily on hold. He created 25 metal sculptures that began from sketches. The subjects were huge animals (including bulls), human torsos, reclining women, and massive objects, including a gigantic coffee pot. His sculpture was exhibited at the Paris Art Fair in 1977, the year he also began to paint again (he paid homage to Velasquez in paintings depicting the Infantas—Spanish or Portuguese princesses). His work continued to be shown in galleries worldwide. In 1983 he established a workshop in an area of Tuscany renowned for its metalworks, which allowed him to spend several months each year creating his increasingly large sculptures, which weighed an average of 3,000 pounds. He also revisited bullfighting as subject matter for his painting, aspiring to become the definitive artist on the subject.
Botero became disturbed that his birthplace, Medellin, had become associated with the drug-trafficking cartel run by Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Botero was said to be incensed that two of his paintings were discovered in Escobar's home after the druglord was killed in 1993. Despite Escobar's death, the violence continued in Medellin, and Botero was the target of a failed kidnapping in 1994.
In 1995 a guerrilla group blew up a sculpture of a dove, The Bird, that Bonero had donated to the city. The explosion occurred during a downtown street festival, and 23 people were killed while 200 others were wounded. When taking responsibility for the blast, the guerrillas called Botero a symbol of oppression. Botero cast a new dove for the plaza but insisted the remnants of the original remain so that the sculptures could represent peace and violence.
In 1996 Botero's son Fernando was convicted of accepting drug money to finance former Colombian President Ernesto Samper's campaign. Botero did not speak to his son for three years, but they later reconciled. In 2000, Botero began exhibiting paintings that reflected the violence in Colombia—images of massacres, torture, and car bombings, and one depicting Escobar's killing—a distinct departure from his usual domestic style. In a 2001 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Botero said, "Art should be an oasis, a…refuge from the hardness of life. But the Colombian drama is so out of proportion that today you can't ignore the violence, the thousands displaced and dead, the processions of coffins."
Donated Work to Colombian Museums
In 2000 Botero donated artwork valued at $200 million to two Colombian museums, the renovated Museum of Antioquia in Medellin and the cultural wing of the Banco de la Republica in Bogota. The Medellin site includes an area that was razed to create a sculpture garden, while the Bogota gift is housed in a 12-room gallery prepared for the collection. Botero's donation consisted of dozens of his own paintings and sculptures, as well as some 90 pieces from his private collection, including 14 impressionist paintings (including oils by Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro), four Picassos, and works by Dali, Miro, Chagall, Ernst, de Kooning, Klimt, Rauschenberg, Giacometti, and Calder.
Botero estimated that by the mid-1990s he had created 1,000 paintings and 100 sculptures. His work had become very popular in the 1980s and commanded high sums. In 1992 a brothel scene sold for $1.5 million at auction. His pencil and watercolor canvases have carried on his familiar themes—portrait-style images of people, brothel scenes, nudes, and still lifes. He married for a third time, to Greek sculptor Sophia Vari, and divided his time among Paris, New York City, Italy, and Colombia.
In January 2002 the French ambassador to Columbia inducted Botero into the Legion of Honor. Botero was honored by this since France had lent aid to help boost peace between Columbia's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.
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