Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist whose paintings peopled with full-figured members of the elite achieved international fame, opening doors for many Latin Americans after him, has died at 91.
Lina Botero, his daughter, told Caracol, a Colombian radio station, that her father died at his home in Monaco on Friday morning. He had been battling pneumonia.
Botero’s paintings of Colombian governmental officials and clergy are now known the world over. He said that when he first started making them, in the 1950s, there wasn’t much other art like it in his home country, where European modernist painting was not widely seen at the time.
His voluptuous figures, with rounded arms, thick waistlines, and sizable thighs, have become instantly distinguishable as Botero’s own. He went on to translate these figures for the third dimension, turning them into sculptures that were sometimes placed in public settings, where they towered over the people who stood before them.
Critics initially debated whether these figures were meant to be parodies, since the politics of Botero’s work was deliberately oblique.
“Botero’s satire is not heavyhanded, though it is blatant, because his paintings work finally like dreams rather than like cartoons,” Peter Schjeldahl once wrote. “There is something about his silly, fleshy monsters that is intimate and familiar, a faintly scary reminder of the self In one of its primitive guises.” He prophesied that Botero’s art would trigger a “renaissance” in Latin American art.
Yet, by the mid-2000s, when Botero’s subject matter had grown to include the still-ongoing conflict involving guerrilla groups in Colombia and images of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it became abundantly clear that his work had perhaps been more politically freighted than some had realized.
“You read about these things, this violence, and this produces an impact on you,” he told the New York Times. “As an artist you want to reflect on this reality.”
The works that made him famous, from the ’60s onward, are much less explicit in their critique. His 1967 painting The Presidential Family (1967), now held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, features the Colombian leader of the era, along with his wife and others related to him. They are shown amid the mountains, seemingly divorced from the rest of the country itself. A Botero-like man can be seen painting behind them, represented in a manner similar to how Velázquez inserted himself into some of his paintings.
Dancing in Colombia (1980), a painting now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is even less fraught. It represents two people swinging beneath a band that dispassionately plays above them. Cigarettes are strewn about on the floor, in the only evidence that the festivities are ongoing.
Many of Botero’s works are conversant with centuries worth of art history. There are buxom women who pat their hair dry while gazing in mirrors, referring to years and years of female nudes, and fattened madonnas and enlarged figures ported over from well-known Spanish art. In rendering these figures with different proportions, Botero refused to conform to the past while also lovingly paying homage to it.
Fernando Botero was born in 1932 in Medellín, Colombia. He lacked exposure to art at all as a child. “In my town were no museums, no galleries, no information about art whatsoever,” he said in a 1985 interview with Artforum’s Ingrid Sischy. “We had a painting of the Virgin Mary in the living room. That was it. The only other art I saw when I was a child were the pictures hanging in the church, which were from the colonial period. They were copies of European prints or paintings.”
As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a bullfighter and attended a school devoted to it. He began to create watercolors and drawings of the scenes he witnessed, and showed some to a store owner in Medellín. That store owner sold some of those early works, causing Botero to realize he could have a career in art.
When he was 16, he attended a Catholic school in Medellín and wrote an article about Picasso, Cubism, and “the destruction of individualism in modern society,” as he described it in an interview with ARTnews. “That was a kind of Marxist concept that I am sure I read someplace and that sounded very intellectual to me.” He ended up being expelled for it.
Three years later, he won a $7,000 national art prize and used the funds to travel to Europe. He went on to study fresco-making and art history in Florence in the early 1950s. His exposure to centuries’ worth of art in Europe was a revelation, and it moved Botero to create a kind of art that he said largely did not exist in Colombia.
In 1960, Botero came to New York. The art he produced was notably out of step with Pop, which devoted itself to representations of commercial objects and consumerism, and he would continue to stand apart from what was on trend in the West. It wasn’t until 1972 that he began to receive serious recognition in the city he long called home.
While a number of Botero’s works are owned by museums in the US, many of his most important ones are held by the Botero Museum in Bogotá and the Museo de Antioquia, to which he donated hundreds of pieces by himself and others in 2000.
Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings, begun in 2005, have been considered a late-career triumph. They are among the most direct, wrenching expressions of the violence enacted by members of the US military against detainees in Iraq, with close-ups of bound, bleeding feet and hands, as well as images of dogs jumping on naked prisoners. Many of these works are owned today by the Berkeley Art Museum in California.
“They may not be masterpieces, but that may not matter,” critic Roberta Smith wrote. “They are among Mr. Botero’s best work, and in an art world where responses to the Iraq war have been scarce—literal or obscure—they stand out.”
Botero often said that he intended his work as a protest, not only against issues of the moment, but against centuries of colonization in Latin America.
“I don’t want to be colonized by anyone, to feel that Latin American art is being defined for me,” he said in the Artforum interview. “Art should be independent. This is the beginning of real independence; only then can one have independence in thinking, in position, in language.”