Cabeza, n.d. Bronze, 267 x 229 x 226 cm. View of work in Medellín, Colombia.

Botero and Sculpture

Fernando Botero was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2012. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Popular recognizability is Fernando Botero’s worst enemy, feeding the rejection of his work by many elitists who favor the age’s paradoxical taste for the smugly obscure combined with the profoundly superficial. Even Robert Hughes, the epitome of critical clarity in the face of bling and weird, once dismissed Botero’s “fat women” as “boring essays on the pneumatics of style.” Botero’s value as an artist needs to be separated from the machinery of its success, which requires a sense of the tradition from which it hails – that of Latin American Modernism – and the multiple tropes with which he engages. It also requires a sense of the uniqueness of Botero’s aesthetic trajectory – he is a painter whose ideas have attained their finest expression in sculpture.

The war on representation waged by European and North American Modernism would never be fought on the soil of the Latin American visual imagination. Centuries of ritual based on symbolism and liturgy {indigenous, West African, and Catholic – often simultaneously} and the resulting cult of the story-telling image had generated a distinct proclivity for adapting Modernist formal devices to concerns radically different from these styles. Fusions of Surrealism and Constructivism, for example, are common in the region’s art. Botero (b. 1932 in Medellin, Columbia) is the scion of Latin American narrative art, launched in the modern era by Diego Rivera’s Marxist twist on Renaissance and Baroque mural painting and picked up by Brazil’s Candido Portinari and Botero’s Columbian precursor, Enrique Grau, among others. But Botero added large doses of Daumier-style satire to this mix, and his parodies of the attitudes that continue to feudalize the Latin American worldview have only nervously endeared him to the region’s big shots. Rivera’s heir is also the precursor of Borat.

Mujer con fruta, 1996. Bronze, 120 x 178 x 155.5 cm. Detail of work installed in Medellin.

Painted and sculpted narratives must use metonymy to make their point. Enabling transference of connotations and values between proximate referents, metonymy is the trope that binds diverse elements into a single sense. Without it, strung words would not make a sentence, notes in a musical composition would float in phenomenal disarray, and the images in a painted setting would not congeal into a theatricalized unity. Foreground metonymy in art, and visual narrative becomes possible – a desire shunned by purists of medium-focused abstraction but not by Latin American storytellers. But since no story tells just one story, ambiguity of content, rather than immediacy of medium, becomes the guiding light of awkwardly Modernist masters such as Botero. And herein lies, perhaps, the principal obstacle to the kind of erudite apotheosis lavished on far lesser figures with wide popular appeal such as Warhol, Hirst, Haring, and Koons. Most First World critics and curators have no taste for the tropological pyrotechnics of Latin American art, so Botero’s juggling of a second trope – hyperbole – along with metonymic narrative blew the fuse on the mantras of medium. His famously bloated figures ravage mindless Latin hedonism and bourgeois sentimentality just as they assault the sanctity of formalism. All the talk about Botero’s transformational rescue of the figure and form, much of it promoted by the artist himself, flounders on the caricature of such an enterprise everywhere evident in his work. Indeed, Botero targets himself, style as a concept, his own style, monumentality, even the act of parodying, all in an unsparing and perpetually grinding vortex that manages to appear welcoming, uncomplicated, and humorous to the learned as well as to the general public.

Narrative requires a setting, a framework against which to ascertain the commerce of meanings and intimations between elements within the pictorial theater. Interestingly, Botero’s most magical paintings are still-lifes – especially those set n butcher’s tables – a genre whose pervasiveness in Colombian art of the comical distortion of the human figure, the still-lifes permit the melons, oranges, sausages, pigs’ heads, knives, vessels, and flies to bloat, but subtly; for this reason, it is the setting’s power to cluster images that assumes the role of protagonist, which otherwise would be the purview of the hammy endomorphs. Instead, those inflated figures migrated to sculpture, and that, perhaps, is Botero’s most startling breakthrough. His analytical powers, long reined in by his technical dexterity and seemingly effortless mockery, liberated the figure from its setting altogether when, in the early 1970s, he began to work consistently with three-dimensional mediums – bronze and marble, in particular. He would, of course, continue to paint his pneumatically conceived people in myriad contexts – from fête champêtres to group portraits to visions of loopy priests, puffy generals, and melancholic transvestites. But the more aesthetic autonomy the sculptures attained, the more elevated his painted still-lifes appeared and the more caricatureque his paintings with figures have become. The bullfight series and several tonally confusing attempts to exploit tragic themes – such as Colombia’s terrorist-narco civil war or the violence at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq – have failed to escape the punch-line effect of the jester’s jab.

Femme debout, 2007. Bronze, 360 x 150 x 150 cm.

When they took the world for their stage, Botero’s figure sculptures, especially his monumental bronzes, gained more than clarity of purpose and presentational immediacy. A third trope came into play that, in his paintings, murmured at the edges of thought. Metaphor replaced metonymy, forging multiple references and allusions in single images. Narrative and metonymy, in turn, became vestigial. The ballerina, for instance, free from the enshrining and imprisoning subversions of context, truly becomes one with her pose and gestures. Tutu skirts lip into suggestive thickness, precisely because of the three-dimensional figure’s power over what surrounds it. Paradoxically, this power comes from the radical indifference of the figure to its environs, something impossible to attain in the cohesive theater of the paintings. And that implosion into one image is the gift of metaphor, the trope of simultaneity more than of resemblance, the device which enables the single image to become a world unto itself and therefore capable of coloring, inflecting, neglecting, or subduing the world around it. For while we must still grasp the world metonymically, however familiar or strange the setting (because it is defined as context and spatial extension), imploded images, much like objects, must be experienced through metaphor.

Botero’s animal figures are particularly revealing. The snide gangster’s smirk of the cats in his paintings – far more menacing than previous representations of felines – does not translate into his bronze renditions. Instead, the sculptures stress the inflation of the overall form and its parts. The painted cats are often depicted sitting and looking directly at the viewer with thuggish aplomb. The most successful bronze felines stand, however, and the eye dwells on this luxurious parody of our proclivity to see in cats and other pets extensions of ourselves. It is the juggling of resonances that makes the sculptures interesting – the balloon-like Pop whimsicality vibrates with allusions to ancient Egyptian religion, modern folk culture, and art history. And, more convincingly than in Botero’s paintings, in his sculptures – and particularly in his cats – heaviness and formalist expansion become signifiers of lightness. Thus, the zeppelin-like creature also nods to the early Modernist fascination with machines.

Hombre a caballo, 1994. Bronze, 328 x 118.5 x 155 cm. (foreground); Soldado romano, 1986. Bronze, 371.2 x 182 x 131.5 cm. (background). Works installed in Medellin.

Art historical references have always been central to Botero’s aesthetic. His quarrying of iconic images by Leonardo, Rubens, Valázquez, and others launched his career at a time when painterly textures, influenced by postwar European informalists and North American Abstract Expressionists, dominated his style; this was in the 1960s when Pop Art roared jurassically in the hegemonic American art world. Botero’s transition to smooth, modeled renditions coincided with the onset of his sculptural work, but meta-art has been the central dynamo of his visual imagination, impacting everything he has done. The metonymic, narrative impulse of his paintings eventually folded completely into this preoccupation with art history, not, as might first appear, as a narcissistic exercise in colonizing the past with one’s stylistic quirks, nor only as evidence of his intellectual digestion and reconfiguration of the canon. Meta-art since Cubism is inalienable from irreverence to some degree, so there is also more to Botero’s sculptures than another assault on the burden of history.

There’s hardly a three-dimensional piece by Botero that falls outside the meta-art classification. The towering bronze trunk of the muscular male torso, attired with a tiny fig leaf, riffs comically on the homoerotics of machismo and the tradition of the male nude as it has come down to us, mutilated by piety and plunder. In this way, the same cultural thrust that gives us the glorification of the male form also emasculates the image out of feat of power. The sculpture’s gigantism enhances all the ideas in play, so that a life-sized version of the torso would be meaningless. The complete standing nudes, male and female, seem more like extrapolations from figures in paintings, as does the seated version of the cat. The horses with and without riders, the colossal heads, the reclining female figures, the sphinx, the bird, and many others illuminate the formalist passions first articulated in Botero’s paintings but with a rapture of form impossible to capture in two-dimensional works. Thanks to Botero’s deft use of metaphor, the horse can also prism references to columns and architecture, and the reclining female nude echoes the voluptuous estuary of her bed much like a candle flame complements the shapes of the melting wax.

Cat, 2003. Bronze, 27.7 x 19.7 x 71.1 cm.

Botero’s triumph as a master of the metaphorics of sculpture enables him to make enlightening forays into art history and resuscitate many of its neglected themes and ideas. Metaphor and meta-art also enable him to bring the sequence-and time-defying games of the metonymic imagination into the public arena, in squares and major outdoor sites across the planet. More than any other artist, Botero has universalized this Latin American penchant for theatrics and tropes, whether his international audience is aware of it or not. And his visual discourse, for a refreshing change, includes the public at large in the fun.

Ricardo Pau-Llosa is a poet and critic who has published widely on Latin American art.