Fernando Botero’s ‘classics’

The town of Medellin in the Colombian Andes was hardly a place with a vivid artistic life, at least not in the early 1930s. Like most remote places, the chances for a native artist to receive international exposure must have been pretty slim, yet Fernando Botero, who was born and spent his early childhood there, not only managed to become an accomplished Latin American artist, but one of the most renowned painters worldwide. This is partly because he was born an artist: He knew he wanted to paint when he was just a child. But for Botero, talent and conviction without hard work cannot take an artist far enough. To this day, Botero will not say that he has conquered the art of painting. He views an artist’s career as a process of constant learning and considers hard work and a commitment to painting his raison d’etre. His work bears one of the most recognizable and unchanging styles of contemporary painting. Defined by voluptuous human figures, most of them taken from the daily life of a past era in Latin America, Botero’s paintings provide a critical yet tender glance on human existence and turn the lives of the most ordinary characters into a colorful, sensuous world. This world is beautifully presented in an exhibition on the artist’s work taking place at the National Gallery and at the Athens Concert Hall. The 142 paintings (with a couple of exceptions, all from the artist’s collection) that are on show at the National Gallery date from the early 1970s to the present and include the artist’s recent works on the theme of Iraqi war prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison under US forces, probably the harshest works that Botero has ever painted. Botero’s work in sculpture, which began in the early 70s when the artist was already well-established, is on display at the Athens Concert Hall. His bronze sculptures are being shown in the Megaron’s forecourt and foyer. (Both exhibitions are taking place thanks to the help of Botero’s wife, the Greek-born sculptor Sofia Vari, and Magda Bella-Baltoyianni, a friend of the two artists and the exclusive dealer of their work in Greece.) The paintings and sculptures alike show Botero’s skill in depicting massive figures that, despite their volume, seem weightless, almost floating. The bloated, taut human bodies of the bronze sculptures end in small feet and dainty fingertips. One has the impression that the bulk of the weight is at the center and that his baffled-looking characters have the lightness of a balloon. In his paintings, he does not use modeling (no shadow and light) thus making his figures less sculpturesque and voluminous. Color is Botero’s primary tool. His light-colored palette is applied in layers and through a special technique that gives his forms a glow that seems to come from within. Botero has repeatedly said that Italian Renaissance painting, especially the work of Piero della Francesca, has had an immense impact on his work, especially in respect to the handling of light and volume. The works of the great Western masters have actually served as a major source of inspiration for Botero’s work, both in terms of subject matter (appropriated themes from Velazquez, Piero della Francesca and other painters are frequent) and style. When he left Colombia in his late teens to study in Spain, Botero discovered a whole new world. He frequented the Prado and studied the great classics of Western art. After a short stay in Paris, he left for Florence. In Tuscany he was enthralled with the Italian early Renaissance paintings. In the mid-1950s, Botero returned to Colombia. At first, his work was ill-received but a successful exhibition in the US turned things around and Botero, who was only 25 at the time, became a professor at Bogota’s Fine Arts Academy. A few years later, Botero and his family moved to New York City. He went through one of the most financially difficult periods in his life, but once the Museum of Modern Art bought his painting «Mona Lisa» (the only contemporary, figurative painting purchased by the museum in 1961) the prospect of a bright, international future seemed close. In the early 1970s, the artist settled in Paris and had his first retrospective exhibition in Bogota. A renowned artist by then, he began to travel, spending his time between his homeland, Paris, Italy (he has a workshop in the town of Petrasanta in Tuscany), Monte Carlo and New York. Although a citizen of the world, Botero feels «100 percent» Colombian and claims that his art is based on Latin American traditions. He considers pre-Colombian art, Latin American folk art and the great Mexican muralist painters (Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros as well as Frida Kahlo) to have had a huge influence on his work. He also believes that for an artist’s work to be universal it has to be rooted in tradition. In a way, this is what makes Botero a «classical» painter. An artist who has studied the great masters of art and forged elements of their work into a distinctive style of his own. He is an artist who has worked in more or less the same style (of post-abstract figuration, as he calls it) and has shown the importance of color and sensuality in painting. Botero’s visual language is rich and sumptuous, with a character of its own. Most importantly, it captures life’s contradictions and reveals the sympathetic yet foolish uneasiness of man when confronting the great mystery that is life. Fernando Botero’s paintings are on display at the National Gallery (50 Vassileos Constantinou, 210.723.5937) through September 23. The sculpture exhibition at the Megaron (Vassilissis Sofias & Kokali, 210.728.2000) will be open to September 10.

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