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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fernando Botero in Tampa Bay

09 January 2009 - 04 April 2010

Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s and the world’s most popular artists. His monumental bronzes have been seen on Park Avenue in New York, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Champs Élysées in Paris. “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” is the first time such a large exhibition of his work has been featured in the Tampa Bay area.

This is also the first retrospective of the artist’s work in North America since the acclaimed 1979 survey at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Spotlighting 100 stunning paintings, sculptures, and drawings, this new exhibition is drawn from Botero’s private collection. These are key works he saved or bought back, providing the artist’s personal look at the amazing sweep of his career.

Three of his impressive large-scale sculptures will be installed outside the Museum: The Hand (1985), Smoking Woman (1987), and The Rape of Europa (1999). Sixteen more will be in the galleries. This exhibition includes many paintings and drawings and a selection of recent sculptures never before shown in North America. The Presenting Sponsor for the MFA venue is The Stuart Society of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Lead Sponsor is Progress Energy. The St. Petersburg Times is the Media Sponsor. Additional support comes from Bright House Networks.

Botero (born 1932 in Medellín, Colombia) is a truly international artist, reflecting diverse influences. As a teenager, he was drawn to the work of Picasso and was expelled from his Catholic high school for writing an admiring essay on the modernist master. Later studies in Europe led to exposure to Velázquez (his portraits of Spanish royalty); Goya (Los desastres de la guerra); Dürer (particularly his Adam and Eve); Rubens; Italian Renaissance fresco painters; and French artists Courbet, Ingres, and Delacroix. The Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros and the great Frida Kahlo (her haunting self-portraits) have also influenced his work.

He sketched his breakthrough mandolin in 1956 in Mexico City. By making the central opening of the instrument very small, he enlarged the volume of the entire mandolin. According to exhibition curator Dr. John Sillevis, “It felt like a shock. From now on he knew what he was going to do. He would enlarge everything he would draw or paint to a baroque shape, an expression of sumptuousness and sensuality, not only in a human figure, but also in still life, in fruits, or in a mandolin.” The Museum exhibition contains a later, striking painting, Still Life with Mandolin (1998). The still life, in fact, has been critical to Botero’s work almost from the very beginning.

Through it all, he has maintained an unbroken tie to Colombia and Latin America, even as he has lived much of his adult life in Paris and Italy. His first and dominant influence was the Spanish colonial baroque art and architecture of Colombia, with its exaggeration and theatricality, particularly in the Catholic churches. These images were imprinted on his mind and work: the bloody Christ on the cross, the perfection and comfort of Mary, the martyred saints, and hovering angels.

Botero was not interested in simply carrying on this tradition, but personalizing it. Mary becomes Our Lady of Colombia (1992), for example, an ample figure wearing a red crown with green jewels. She weeps for her country and carries a large child, perhaps the youthful Botero, waving a tiny Colombian flag. Characteristically, the color is spectacular. Her yellow hair and dress and the child’s halo are set against a green backdrop held by two cherubs. The child wears lighter green socks. This is a contemporary Madonna, conveying emotion, yet remaining distant, like a statue.

Another crying Madonna is at the center of The Widow (1997), based on the artist’s childhood. His mother, widowed at an early age, was left to raise three children with almost no money. Again, there is a stylized quality to this painting, even as it points to the struggle to survive in Latin America. This struggle often comes up against the powerful in Botero’s art—the well-fed presidents and their wives and the equally pampered Catholic hierarchy.

The natural world, so central to his childhood memories, can be richly colorful and abundant, like in Florida. But the dense foliage can also oppress the huge figures in front or below. In Botero’s work, there is often an undercurrent amid all the beauty. He also captures the natural disasters that threaten humanity, usually giving them a Latin American or Colombian cast. The Earthquake (2000) is a prime example, with colonial buildings reduced to rubble and one lone figure pleading for help from an upstairs window.

The exhibition also includes a section on everyday life in South America: people in dance halls and brothels, on the street, and in the intimacy of their bedrooms and bathrooms. Everyone and everything are larger-than-life. There are also crime scenes and depictions of political violence and repression.

The artist’s wonderful sense of humor, his appreciation of the comedy of life, is frequently on view, as the distinguished Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has noted. The huge Dancer at the Barre (2001) could never maintain such a pose, but Botero makes her incredibly graceful. The painting draws a smile, not ridicule. Botero encourages us to see the human spirit at work in the unlikeliest of bodies and places.

Botero’s art, while immediately accessible, has many layers and has been collected by the world’s great museums. They include: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Hirshhorn, and The Hermitage Museum, among others. He is one of those rare artists who has crossed over from the art world into the larger culture.

“The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Sillevis is Curator of the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.

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