Fernando Botero (1932)

The aesthetics of monumentality

Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda

Here are Botero’s fat characters, so Colombian against their eternal backdrop of mountains, volcanoes and snowfields. In their villages with multicoloured mud tiles and steep, narrow alleyways. Here we have his madonnas, his bishops and nuns. His water-melons, bananas, zapotes and oranges, his batidos and morcillas, mouth-watering Colombian dishes served up in a painting one might almost be tempted to eat. And then, of course, cathedrals looking like cakes and, just to make quite sure, Colombian flags fluttering everywhere.

Colombian Still Life (1993) is the title of one of his paintings, but it might just as well be that of his entire oeuvre: a cheerful, sarcastic, humorous vision that we ourselves distort. “I paint local, provincial subjects”, the artist once said, fully aware of how his statement would be perceived in many other parts of the world. While an initial (“folklore-style”, one might say) approach to his works might suggest a vision of the Latin-American spirit as a never-ending procession of presidents, dictators, military juntas and first ladies, closer examination reveals deeper, better concealed secrets. Beneath the medals and presidential banners, the fox furs and overblown colliers, beats the heart of the Prado and the Louvre, the Italian churches and the walls on which Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros gave shape to the mestizo uprising and the first great revolution of the twentieth century in Mexico. Here we find the best in the history of art, from Piero della Francesca to Ingres, through Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rubens and Velázquez, to each of whom he has paid clear homage. Nor does he neglect the Mona Lisa and Georges de La Tour. However, while following this creative itinerary through the history of art, he always remains faithful to that “provincial” taste that keeps the huddled roofs of his home town Medellín alive in their atmosphere of sacred and profane. The little rosy angels of the Renaissance are transformed into the mischievous devils of Tomás Carrasquilla’s On the Right Hand of God the Father. Here too we find the source of inspiration in the hands of the artist, as they caress, deliberately slowly, the paunchy little horses of Ráquira or the popular mud figures of Carmen de Viboral. And if we go back even further in time, another type of ceramic - this time pre-Columbian and Quimbaya - contains solemn and monumental overtones despite its graceful weightlessness. And one should not forget the harquebusier archangels of colonial painting, which he has collected with loving care, or the sumptuous Baroque altarpieces with their golden fruits.

Botero comes from an Antioquia that is isolated in the mountains and, as Carlos Jiménez Gómez says in his book Notas de pueblo en pueblo (1976): “Whenever you leave Medellín, it is always to come back, as though its periphery were concentric.” Possibly for this reason its most cheerful sight can be found in the old brothels of the Lovaina district of Medellín. where his figures pile up until they make the space look as though it has been engulfed by constantly expanding bodies. We can see a perfect example of this in the Home of Amanda Ramírez (1988), in which the hulking man in brown trousers and green jacket bears on his shoulder, in a circus-like pose, the round little woman with grey stockings and minuscule sex. In the background, a man on the bed heaves breathlessly on top of the woman who has long fallen asleep, and will be absent for eternity. All the figures are rounded, yet at the same time meticulous and exact. Nothing epitomises better this microcosm, at once familiar and gruesome, than the Death of Ana Rosa Calderón (1969). Here the small black man knocks at the door of the naked prostitute, takes her horse-riding in the fields, stabs her with apparent non-chalance, cuts her up and buries the pieces and then, at last, sleeps peacefully in a cloud of flies, while the slothful-looking policeman leans up against the wall, terminating the sequence.

Like a bloodthirsty comic strip with a clear story to tell, Fernando Botero loves telling his tales in episodes: that of the bishops travelling towards remote councils, with their parasols so they can walk in enchanted woods; the one of the man at the age of the pool, from which he witnesses a procession of the weighty Muses he desires; giants and dwarfs, prostitutes and petty clerks, kings and painters, jesters and musicians, pimps and
drunkards sleeping under iron beds or squinting as they down the last drop from a bottle of rum or brandy, as the painter carefully points out with absolute clarity.

Now the world becomes the Home of Maria Duque (1970), Home of Ana Molina (1972), Home of the Arias Twins (1973), the settings in which, taking from Fernando Botero’s bohemian youth, we find ourselves in a different age, inhabited by his phantasms: drawings for the newspaper, drinking bouts and parties with his friends, visits to the brothels, or the thrill of bullfighting. This is the world of his provincial horseplay but also that of his persevering and meticulous analysis of the finest painting. He wrote about Picasso and was accused of being a Communist, he tells us. Botero attempts to lead his buxom ladies in crinoline, with their minute, heart-shaped lips, down the path to perdition on quilts with floral decorations of the worst possible taste. Intense, plebeian bad taste, underdeveloped kitsch exaggerated and contrasting, nourishing the expansion of these figures on floors carpeted with cigarette buffs, the dense air made palpable by the buzzing of the flies. Volumes filling a space that strikes our eyes with all the candour of an icon. An icon on which Botero the wizard pulls the strings of these puppets-made-flesh just as he likes.

Here too we see the self-satisfied, pretentious opulence of these middleclass families, so proud of their toy-like homes or of the photograph of their gardens to be shown off to visitors. These are indeed the legitimate and accepted counterpoint to that “red zone” we visited earlier on. There is something ostentatious and puerile in all this, something that gives the impression of toys too big for chubby and clumsy hands. The inordinate asymmetry of these squat cylinders, these barrels with hands and feet, only becomes acceptable on the basis of the internal logic that governs this altered world, as well as the colour that gives this naif yet brilliantly skilful postcard its sensitivity. The colour of the people, of the processions of the silleteros of Medellín, as they come down from the mountains with their bundles of flowers, or the water market of flowers in Xochimilco. These colours are an explosion of bad taste and yet they adapt it to the geometrical sobriety of a restrained composition. With the architectonic clarity for which he is famous, Botero’s blues, pinks, greys and oranges manage to embrace a world that by now is truly his: that of a son of the provinces who has conquered the history of art.


The village of Antioquia is locked in among the mountains, turned to stone and suspend-ed in historical immobility. The mule tracks remain frozen as they were when last Botero captured them for ever and even the man falling from his horse manages to float eternally in the air. Presumptuous and frivolous, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette burst in on these tracks, visiting a Medellín of priests and the blessed, governed by the Church and determined to condemn itself to the fires of hell for its sinful adoration of profit and the pleasures of the flesh, with all the weight of its sins on its shoulders. This is why there are so many nudes - obsessive and cold, like frozen figures. For the same reason, the religious cloister will have its walls broken and its last sacred images scattered in the streets: the fat nuns with their padded habits, and hurried priests breathless in their cassocks. The cathedral of Medellín and the Virgen de Colombia, immaculate yet oppressive.

This might suggest a brutal realism and deliberate ugliness, yet actually Botero’s personal style of representation is perfectly summed up in that’ coarse vocabulary. One might wonder why this should be.

It is because Botero knows full well, as Carlos Jiménez Gómez pointed out, that “what the province of Antioquia owes to the country is the clearly peasant aspect of its culture.” This might possibly explain his visual pragmatism. There can be no misunderstanding: reality is what it is. The bishop is the bishop, the captain is the captain, the prostitute the prostitute. To this one should add the artful, primi-tive ingenuousness that gives us a foreground full of traps and alluring figures that hide or conceal themselves, looking out with curiosi-ty or disappearing with distrust. An extremely precise accumulation of detail and sculptural jest to amuse us and hold our attention. The tricks of the trade of a skilful storyteller.

He uses harsh reality to tell the truth and bring out the conservative tradition and the wish to exaggerate, to revel in excessive and abundant narrative, and emphatic authenticity. That’s the way I am, a mountain peasant and I’ll tell you a story about lots of money, in which it’s the devil who gets rich. The tale is so grotesque and implausible that in the end we can only laugh and accept the excesses of that devastated world. His exaggeration leads us into a trap, into a game we go along with joyously. We break through the limits of our daily chores - so clearly emphasized in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the workers about their tasks (1994), in the Housemaid (1998), in the grandmother’s rocking chair in mother’s sewing machine - and we sit back happily in the dream that redeems and broadens those parochial horizons. The largest mandolin. The impossible apples. It is like swallowing the world and regurgitating it transformed into the image of our desires. But among these perfect victors one can glimpse the residues of harsh cunning and prejudice. Was it not true, then, that the protestants all went around naked in their homes?

Something ingenuous and, at the same time, falsely stiff and rigid, barely manages to conceal an ambitious desire to triumph and achieve recognition. The man takes his fable seriously and makes us laugh along with it. But the cheerful illusion of comedy can also turn into tragedy. Even in recent times, in the “Death of Pablo Escobar” (1999), Botero paints him against his eternal roofs, surrounded by his green mountains, in a hail of bullets that demolish his unmoving humanity. He too, a renewed legend, was killed by the sentimentalism of a phone call that went on too long with his family.

His mother and family, voracious and ever-present, continue to guide that world of immature men, impatient to accumulate riches and be always the best. Men playing naked on all fours with women galopping on their backs. They are the tallest, the biggest, the fattest. Fernando Gonzáles, the philosopher of Antioquia par excellence, talked of “the fat man of Medellín”.


Bernard Berenson, in his classic Italian Painters of the Renaissance, mentions the lack of taste, that indelible tare of the provinces, when writing about painters who attempt to imitate the great works of the Florentines and Venetians they so much admire. Botero, who equally admires, imitates and recreates the Venetians and Florentines, has inverted the formula: we can see this in the very recent portrait of Federico di Montefeltro and his wife, a homage to Piero della Francesca, whom he has literally painted the other way round. He has inverted the order: hidden profiles are now uncovered, revealing the empty stare that was previously concealed, The bad taste of the provinces is thus transformed into the focus needed to cannibalise and devour both art and province, blending them into a single amalgam (1).

A little boy finds his way into Mantegna’s wedding chamber and attempts to unsettle our visual certainties and provide us with a new perspective: this is where female dwarfs become broader and adults return to an puerility they have never completely abandoned. There are tactile values in the eye which enable us to palpate and perceive the rotund consistency of this new reality. The reality of Botero. Painting as a world in itself. But these enclosures, as precarious as they are full, are also inhabited by others. Those, for example, that we see in cupboard mirrors, expanding those masses of flesh beyond all proportion, those excessive, distant goddesses, those bodies that achieve the highest ambition of Botero’s painting: that of exalting form, making it eternal and unforgettable.

Paintings to be savoured, dispensing sensuality and pleasure by means of a paradoxical treatment: the geometrical disposition of masses blends into a visual gastronomy. In the countless variations on the Concert Champetre (1994, watercolour) or the Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, we chew our way through autonomous and yet, at the same time, dependent beings: they may have come from Giorgione or Manet, but by now they are Botero’s. They give each other the support and assistance they need in the sculptural universe Botero has created for them. In them, the disproportion obtained by inflating on the one hand and reducing on the other - immense eyes, tiny mouths, short arms, big hands - transforms them, as Germán Arciniegas states in his book on Botero (1979), into a “playful comment, quiet sarcasm “. Greatness has fallen and it is now time to restore it, painting this gallery of unforgettable faces: portraits by Durer, by Velázquez, by Courbet or Cezanne.

Rather than a critic, Botero is a painter. The implacable lucidity of his eye penetrates even further into the depths, and this is certainly due to his inevitable sympathy for those values that made him what he is: those of the country where he was born and of the painting he uses to express himself. “You must never lose your ties with your own country”, he has said. “In the case of Colombia in particular I think we’re dealing with a disquieting and still unique form of enchantment.”

The words that Federico García Lorca used to refer to the gift of poetry are the same as those that the astute Botero, with his carefully tended little beard, uses to sneak into the sacred world of the history of art, and move about in it as he pleases. Madame Pompadour grows like a ball almost to bursting point, and the bishops roll on the pavement, barely transformed into shape and colour. A pyramidal structure. A rainbow of harmonious colours. Wavering between the imaginative ostentation of a creative game and the austerity of a form of representation that, in a certain way, he has always intended to be realistic, here we see how the Botero the Colombian’s fat men and women have managed to assert themselves. Without their land of origin, these figures would have no comprehensive explanation. And yet, like all truly significant art, they go beyond the land that nourished them with its inevitable contagion. The main thing that is new in Botero is in his way of painting still lives. Nudes, bouquets of flowers, or family portraits. Crucifixions. With a personal touch of bitter-sweet innocence, of euphoria and derelict solitude, with his impassive objectivity, with statuesque-like detachment. These are all elements that basically give his art its cogency.

By deforming his little patch of provincial reality as he pleases, Botero has managed to make all the creatures in the vast, boundless world we call “reality” (strictly in inverted commas) in his own likeness and after his image. In an ironic self portrait, the little painter he places at the feet of his colossal figures knew exactly what he was trying to do: he was attempting to recreate the world according to his own taste, to make it Colombian, to transform it into subjugating, indisputable painting. This is why we must continue to question it, in order to slip into the sort of wedding chamber in which he creates his sculptural alchemy


All his characters have a fixed stare, as though they had been frozen in some remote paradise of the thirties or forties. A provincial world of smarmy lawyers, forever scheming, with hearts as tight as the little ties around their necks, with the foppish little beards of suburban womanisers. The same men who then take off their jackets and launch into festive card games, or who start their heavy, clumsy dancing in those fiestas where the garlands are coloured like the Colombian flag and the air is filled with a dense mixture of smells: cigarettes, the acid smell of black armpit hairs, the sweet and sickly fragrance of cheap patchouli. But the day will inevitably be won by none other than those crosseyed ladies: queens for a night on beds with headrests adorned with bronze balls, they will devour in their vastness those ridiculous little men, wrapped around pint-sized puppets they can do with what they will, while they, massive whales of flesh, will take up all the available space until they suffocate them. They will saturate the mirrors and invade our vision and our voyeurism as awkward observers, with the virginal indifference of their white opulence plastered with moles and freckles. No one has yet been able to subdue them and certainly not sully them with the powerful scent of unrestrained passion. They will find themselves alone once more, with the moon as their only companion, in their little rooms with peeling walls, while the morning burglar will make off against a multicoloured backdrop of colonial tiles.
What a fascinating atmosphere Botero has been able to create. A real court of miracles located in the land of Colombia, but projected like an ineluctable universal image of Latin American identity.

His colours have the taste of confectionary, with whitish lilacs and sickly-sweet blues. Little junk birds and tropical flowers. In the same way, his drinks, his pigs’ heads and bulky forks invite us to a banquet in a country eating place or at a stall for passers-by. The only concession he appears, only rarely, to make is an evident anachronism: an archaic peasant warfare, with rubber boots and camouflage uniform, squatting in the wood in which the trees recall more the mesh of lances in Paolo Uccello’s baffles, or the Victory of Constantine over Maxentius by Piero della Francesca, than they do the intricate abundance of our plundered forests. This material, which is so explicitly picturesque and, one might say, so underdeveloped, is magnified out of all proportion by Botero. His cold eye works on form, composition and volume, not on nostalgia or social critique. Some paint-ings end up by offering us a timeless light, in a perpetual, irrefutable world. As he himself states, fully aware of his own task: “For about fifteen years now, I’ve been working with four colours: yellow ochre, cobalt blue, cadmium red and emerald green. And black and white. That’s it. That’s where everything comes from.”


The implicit elements are naturally nostalgia and criticism. But the main obsession is making the totemic matron and the ridiculous pipsqueak of a man achieve an unlikely balance, with the colours, that apparently reject each other managing to create an underlying form of affinity. Acid yellows con-verse with emphatic fuchsias, and lively coloured quilts deck the beds of matrons in whom marble could easily turn into pliable clay, pink and delicious. We can see this for example in Still Life with Ice Cream (1990), an oil painting in which a hysterical apotheosis of pinks, greens and oranges explodes on a yellow tablecloth framed by a grey curtain. But all these “snares” lead towards the static monumentality of an imperturbable art. Where faces proudly display the bovine satisfaction of those who no longer need the world in order to replace time: they are selfsufficient. They overcome themselves in plastic superabundance, as we can see in the bishop in the brilliant Walking by the River (1989), where Botero’s virtuosity reaches clas-sical levels. The proof of his talent can be seen when he tackles a pear (1997): a bodily mass that fills up the entire space and, with supreme disdain, excludes everything but its own opulent and overwhelming rotundity. A pear that lets no other object stand by its side, dominating like an absolute monarch the entire scope of our perception. There can be nothing else. It demands our attention, almost always frivolous and almost always lured away by so many exclusive centres of focus (the style, the humour the technical skill): a receptive offering and a contemplation that asks no forgiveness.
The surface of a full, complete world. Something that has transformed pure excess into a masterful limit. Nothing other than painting. And we remain contemplating it, like worshippers before an idol, with the astonishment of the converted beholding the blinding light. This is where evidence and irony are fused into suspicious coexistence. The fiendish Botero has given us back our trust in painting - for the first victim of our illusion is none other than him. With his art, he has taught us to live in his paintings and share our time with his creatures. Only like this can one explain how he has managed to maintain with such dedication, austerity and coherence, a world sometimes too puerile and popular as joyful as it is immature, as provincial as it is universal. Because his real date of birth is not, as it is said, 1932 in Medellín, but 1958 when, after visiting Spain, France and Italy, he painted his Homage to Mantegna. From that moment on, he armed himself with paintbrushes and palette and became an unrivalled knight of painting.


The monumentality of his still lives of 1997, 1998 and 1999 is accentuated by the enormous grey vases that come into all of them as a basic motif. The cramped space in which they are exhibited is made even tighter by the heavy tables that parade their own sculpted volumes and their own emphatic dimensions. But this scenic cube is always broken by a mirror or a window: gar-den and air. He plays like this with the ref lections of the objects and the transparencies of the glass, so as to alleviate the weight of the powerful and solid table legs or the rigidity of the crumpled fabrics, creating a spiritual link with the orange or the watermelon, the cucumber or the apple. In this way, against the horizontal backdrop of the table and the vertical block of objects, he creates an elegant balance of colour in which a blue rope or an open drawer close the composition in defined and classic symmetry. Like his figures, that we analysed earlier also his objects grow in the solitude of a constant return to themselves.

Generally speaking, in his still lives, with their silent greys and pinks breaking through the solemn seriousness of those everyday altarpieces, knives and violins, bottles and lamps appear to be eulogised in an aura of time-lessness: kitchen implements turned into cult objects. This can be clearly seen in his Still Life with Lamp and Bottle of 1999, in which the daily newspaper El Tiempo and the calendar lose their own timescale and are transformed into frozen yellow presences that transcend their original function. That of informing, possibly, or establishing time by means of a date.

Like the fruit described earlier or the nude woman on the beach, these objects have now entered another dimension. The inevitable marble with which the painting freezes time and in which erosion is fearlessly halted. A thin patina is applied to the greens and mahogany, altering the dates: the fleet-ing moments of ephemeral topicality, of news and events, are transformed into a gilded dust of greenish eternity that covers and preserves the pear the orange and the bottle.

Still Life with Guitar of 1993 is a drawing with a composition that absorbs the observer and attracts the eye towards the top, with its semicircle of windows, mountains and colonial tiles. Then it offers its famous banquet of plums, pineapples and apples, while the proverbial guitar accompanied by the faint yellows of the fruit next to it, announces a shift from colour to music. It announces thatharmony that must dominate in all the arts, whether sounds or pigments are used for expression. In both cases, they are the musical notes of a stave in which the tones and transitions, the vibrations or the pauses, the acutes or the sustained links with a new chromatic harmony are accentuated or lightened. Another Still Life, this time made in 1997, shows perfectly how Botero continually explores his own inalienable theses in a truly original and obsessive manner.

In Oranges, four whole oranges, one in half, and a segment, shine brightly in their compact unity. The world as a sphere. They also possess the meticulous damp freshness of their natural brilliance. They are drops of light. The details of the pips, the ribs and the peel acquire a splendour of their own in contrast with the pink tablecloth or the burnt yellow of the wall. Without forgetting the greenish rectangle of the tile. There is a gradation of colour that rises and maintains itself to obtain that incredibly ardent orange. The fruit is replaced by colour by that eyeful that isolates the individuality of each presence and brings them together in a greater whole -one made of distances and affinities, of blocks and spaces. Botero breaks them up and recreates them to obtain their true essence. The study and analysis to which he subjects his themes, continually going back on them, has enabled him to make that quantum leap in quality and to go on from the successful Oranges to a painting that is surprising from every point of view: his Homage to Georges de La Tour, of 1998, in which the starry sky and the hand advancing like a sail give the three whole oranges and the two cut ones, as well as the goblet with its yellow content, a sensation of starry peace, of cosmic tranquillity, of calm and gracefulness. The table has freed itself of its earthly bonds and floats free in space. The silence of that dark expanse has become human, the light of the painting has cleared away the shadows, teaching us to see, to meditate and to remain in silence. Through the light reflected in the goblet or in the segment of orange, the intimate coexistence with the structure of those fruits is transmitted to the entire universe, as well as to the painter to whom Botero pays homage. One of whom André Malraux wrote in his essay Les Voix du Silence.

Latour does not paint darkness. He paints The night. The night distended on the earth, the age-old mystery of silence. His characters are not separated from it; they are its emanation. Also Botero’s painting comes from the provinces, from his land, from his region. And yet it has stayed there, timeless and motionless. Art has made it universal.


When we refer to Homage to Georges de La Tour, in a certain sense we allude to the way in which Fernando Botero makes a link to the tradition of the finest painting, recreating it throughout its entire history. His variations on an infantile and youthful Mona Lisa, dating back to the sixties, are well known. This is why it is worth dwelling on his 1978 Mona Lisa. It shows a vision that, while still very Botero-like, is tempered by the attenuation of his previ-ous expressionist style and the big flowers that accompanied it. The painter approaches this subject with a clearer and more uniform patina, with a more severe concentration on the motif. A more “classicist” Mona Lisa, one might say.

There is such self-satisfied peace and such total domination of space around this figure that we can better understand Fernando Botero’s aesthetics of roundness. His much praised ability not to lose the enigma of his reference work, the subject of infinite interpretations, like that of Sigmund Freud in Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910), and her proverbial smile, which here becomes mischievous and yet nuanced, give her the right to her soft skin and broad, peaceful face, revealing a moving and, in a certain sense, complicit beauty. A static monument but one that is full of life, in the curls that frame her winking look.

The game now has more to it: Botero repaints the Mona Lisa and we look on cheerfully at an adventure that started so long ago, when he painted it at five, seven, nine years of age, when he explored its origins. Now Botero has become mature and the Mona Lisa with him. This adventure enchants and seduces us, since we have seen it reconstructed with the iconoclastic fervour of his expansive youthful lines. But even then he applied an austerity of form that was actually excessive. The da Vinci-Botero form ran the risk of bursting out of the frame and from the humanity of her overblown-doll proportions, yet something subtle in his vocation for realism kept her classical and, in actual fact, definitive.

The Mona Lisa is now an unmistakable symbol in our minds and in our concept of what painting really is. Not even Marcel Duchamp, by adding a moustache, was able to destroy her consecrated power as an icon. Botero, as we say now, does not work on her modifying her from the outside; instead, he lives within her expanding her developing her to the maximum extent, giving her greater sculptural power. He neither assaults her nor demeans her for he takes each of her elements one by one and puts them on a larger scale, in order to subjugate us under her strength and remind us what she continues irremediably to be: painting.

Botero’s Mona Lisa looks at us with indifference from Bogotá, which is only right and proper as she faces the passing of time and people. But there is such expressive tenderness in those staring eyes and in those lips so full of motionless mischief, that her stateliness- much more imperious and demanding -has acquired a new ingredient: the “Boterian” touch. The smile that tells us: look what pleasure I have in daring to repaint the Mona Lisa. She has lost none of her Sphinx-like power questioning us with the emptiness of her receptive form. She accepts all questions, knowing that, as a painting, she will remain unscathed. The more we observe her the less she will be ours and the more she will belong to Botero. In his style, under his brand and with his signature.

The landscape behind her with rocky volcanoes and clouds like a marble frame on the green horizon of reveries, adds a sort of dreamlike quality to that indecipherable interrogative. By painting her again, Botero has revealed her figure once more.

He has placed us at the centre of that immobile flame, of that perpetual question that is painting. In vain we rotate around her attempting to besiege this unique presence that compassionately smiles back at us. So the answer then, is that she is exclusively Botero’s, for he has been able to live with her for so many years and in so many of her metamorphoses. He alone has been able to share her infinitely distant proximity.

How far removed from the Maribarbola of 1984. Tyrannical and implacable, Velázquez “menina-bufón” is older in her glowering wrinkles and in the harsh pink base with which the dress, hairstyle and necklace support that mass of flesh, trembling yet rigid, that bends with indubitable acrimony as she takes us on and denounces us. The dwarf has become a merciless monster that the perfect light of the Meninas had concealed in the miraculous harmony of the overall picture.


It was in 1988, a decade after his Mona Lisa, when Botero truly moved us with a splendid oil painting: Guerrilla Warfare of Eliseo Velázquez. One of his great paintings, in which the pure, classical composition balances forms and spaces. He keeps his figures firmly on the ground and those on the hammock in an extraordinary parallelism, cladding with the subtlest astuteness the coloured bundles the guerrilla gnome is handling, or the curious suitcases and luggage these rebels take with them through the forest, in which the serpents and apples of paradise live alongside mis-shapen rifles and inevitable cigarette buffs.

Botero has worked in such a way as to ensure that the treatment and the subject come together in the solution to a sculptural problem: facing a scene and solving it with shrewdness, The three figures sleeping and the three working or keeping guard create such a singular intersection of vanishing points and such visual richness that they make us feel part of a varied and highly populated scene, full of action in its austere immobility. The Italian Renaissance transferred to the forests of Colombia.

Botero’s ability to freeze events means that his treatment of Colombian themes - and violence in particular - acquires the pathological fixity of obsessive reiteration. History has become a perverse dream, a recurrent night-mare. In the Massacre of Mejor Esquina of 1997, the two lamps and the dotted trajectory of the bullets do not frame an action, but rather trace out a diagram - where the couples had been dancing, they fall to the floor before a hotchpotch of eyes and weapons that brutally burst into the festivities. His painting is not a denouncement. In its browns, greens and yellows, it has the immobile serenity of a perpetual elegy. It is the colours that, prophetic and funereal, immerge us in an oppressive climate. The same climate with which Car Bomb of 1999 contracts into its perspective of expressionist distortion. Contorted between doors and rocks, between browns, greens and blues, the painting ends up by acquiring the criminal ability of man to deform the world around him, Only painting, by offering both the rule and the exception, the paradigm and the anomaly, can re-establish a scale of values. It reveals the splendid power of restoring to the world the colours it has lost and giving man once again the evocative serenity of his passage on earth. It puts things back in their place. In the rigid hierarchy of his painting.

This can be seen in the Bishop by the River of 1989, in which nature generously offers strong trees and the solitary little figure of the bishop with the parasol are reflected not in the water of the river but in the illusion with which Botero creates his more vast and complex vision. There is such mastery in his composition, such tranquil power of conviction, that only a stump of the central tree does not join at the top, in its presumable trunk, but in the reflection in the water. The painter once again reminds us that his painting is painting, invented and enlarged by himself. A vast world that exists only in his brush and in his eyes, in his tenacity and in the pleasure he gives us. Those presences that accompany us and that, with their creative vigour make us human once more.

©Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 2003


(1) The paintings an artist admires are almost as important as his own works. It is from this point of view that I studied the Botero donation to Colombia, in the pamphlet: Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, Un paseo entre obras maestras. La donación Botero el gusto de un pintor. Bogotá, Museo Botero, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, 2001, 23 pages.