Fernando Botero, artist of whimsical rotundity, is dead at 91

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Fernando Botero, artist of whimsical rotundity, is dead at 91
Paintings by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero are displayed at the Museo Botero in Bogota on Oct. 23, 2015. Botero, whose voluptuous pictures and sculptures of overstuffed generals, bishops, prostitutes, housewives and other products of his magic-realist imagination made him one of the world’s best-known artists, died on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Monaco. He was 91. (Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)

by Stephen Kinzer

NEW YORK, NY.- Fernando Botero, the Colombian whose voluptuous pictures and sculptures of overstuffed generals, bishops, prostitutes, housewives and other products of his whimsical imagination made him one of the world’s best-known artists, died Friday in Monaco. He was 91.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by a close friend, Mauricio Vallejo, a co-owner of an art gallery in Houston, who said the cause was complications of pneumonia. President Gustavo Petro of Colombia earlier announced the death on social media.

As a young artist, Botero developed an instantly recognizable style and enjoyed great and immediate commercial success. Fans sought his autograph and were known to wait for him at airports.

“‘It’s the profession you do if you wish to die of hunger,’ people used to tell me,” he once recalled. “Yet I was so strongly impelled to take it up that I never thought about the consequences.”

Botero was permanently associated with the florid, rounded figures that filled his pictures. He portrayed middle-class life and bordellos, clerics and peasants, bulging baskets of fruit and the grim effects of violence.

Fernando Botero Angulo was born April 19, 1932, in the Colombian city of Medellín. His father died when he was a child. An uncle enrolled him in a Jesuit high school, encouraged his artistic interests and supported him for two years as he studied to be a matador. Bullfighting scenes figure in some of his earliest work, and he followed bullfighting all his life.

After publishing an article titled “Pablo Picasso and Nonconformity in Art,” Botero was expelled from his Jesuit school because it expressed ideas said to be “irreligious.” Among his early influences were cubism, Mexican murals and the pinup art of Alberto Vargas, whose “Vargas girl” drawings he saw in Esquire magazine.

He began publishing illustrations in a local newspaper while still a teenager, worked as a set designer and in 1951 moved to Bogotá, the capital. After his first one-man show there, he moved to Paris and spent several years living there and in Florence, Italy.

In 1961, New York curator Dorothy Miller bought a Botero work, “Mona Lisa, Age Twelve,” for the Museum of Modern Art. It was a surprising choice, since abstract expressionism was then the rage, and Botero’s sketchy portrait of a chubby-cheeked child seemed out of place. It was placed on exhibit while the original Mona Lisa was being shown uptown, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Modern’s attention to his work helped set Botero on a path to renown. In 1979, he was the subject of a retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington. Many of his pictures were of corpulent figures poised between caricature and pathos.

“A perfect woman in art can prove banal in reality, like a photograph in Playboy,” Botero reasoned. “The most beautiful women in art, like Mona Lisa herself, were ugly in real life. There are those who see the monstrous in my work, but my work is what it is.”

One review of the Hirshhorn show was headlined “Botero, One Hundred Thousand Dollars for a Painting by Him in Washington.” That reflected the view of some critics that Botero’s work was banal, self-referential and out of touch with vibrant currents in contemporary art.

“The critics have always written with rage and fury about me, all my life,” Botero groused.

Writing in The London Evening Standard in 2009, arts writer Godfrey Barker marveled, “Wow, do they loathe him.”

“The high priests of contemporary art in London and New York cannot stand him because he defies everything they believe in,” Barker wrote. “They hate him more because he is rich, an immense commercial success, easy on the eye, and very popular with ordinary folk.”

Botero and his first wife, Gloria Zea, who became Colombia’s minister of culture, divorced in 1960 after having three children: Fernando, Lina and Juan Carlos. He spent much of the next decade and a half living in New York. Zea died in 2019. He was married two other times, to Cecilia Zambrano and, in 1978, to Sophia Vari, a Greek painter and sculptor. Vari died in May.

He is survived by his three children from his first marriage as well as a brother, Rodrigo, and grandchildren.

Two misfortunes marked Botero’s family life. In the 1970s, his 5-year-old son, Pedro, from his second marriage, was killed in a car crash in which Botero was injured. His son Fernando Botero Zea, who had become a politician in Colombia and rose to minister of defense, served 30 months in prison after being convicted in a corruption scandal.

It was during the 1970s that Botero’s interest in form led him to sculpture. His sculptures, many depicting florid, whimsical large people, brought him a new level of public visibility. Major cities clamored to place them along main avenues, including, in New York, in the median strips of Park Avenue in 1993. Several are on permanent display in nontraditional spaces including the lobby of the Deutsche Bank Center (formerly the Time Warner Center) in New York and a lounge at the Grand Wailea resort in Hawaii called the Botero Lounge.

Botero was an enthusiastic art collector, and in 2000, he donated part of his collection to a museum in his hometown, Medellín. Some of his works are interpretations of masterpieces by artists like Caravaggio, Titian and Vincent van Gogh.

Botero usually depicted his men of power with at least a touch of irony or satire. Yet, although they may appear foppish or self-important, and nearly all are of exaggerated proportion, he infused them with a measure of dignity.

Jesus was Botero’s subject in several evocative works. He painted portraits of Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Alberto Giacometti. His images of authority, like “Cardinal,” “The English Ambassador,” “The First Lady” and two called “The President,” painted in 1987 and 1989, are gently sympathetic. He brought portly dignity to a man who smoked and a woman who stroked a cat.

Many of his subjects, though, were swollen tapestries of flesh, bursting from the confines of uniforms, dresses and towels unable to cover exaggerated acreage. He insisted that he never painted fat people, saying he wished simply to glorify the sensuality of life.

“I studied the art of Giotto and all other Italian masters,” he once said. “I was fascinated by their sense of volume and monumentality. Of course in modern art everything is exaggerated, so my voluminous figures also became exaggerated.”

Botero and Vari maintained homes in Paris and Pietrasanta, Italy, where an exhibition was held to mark his 80th birthday in 2012.

Some who considered Botero’s art to be essentially playful and lighthearted were surprised when, in 2005, he produced a series of graphic paintings based on photographs of prisoners abused at the U.S. jail in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

“These works are the result of the indignation that the violations in Iraq produced in me and the rest of the world,” he said.

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote that the Abu Ghraib paintings “restore the prisoners’ dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony or the injustice of their situation.” Novelist and critic Erica Jong called them “astonishing” and asserted that they argued for “a complete revision of whatever we previously thought of Botero’s work.”

“When we think about the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, most of us visualize his roly-poly people flaunting their fat, their fashionable headgear, their cigarettes and cigarette holders, their excess,” Jong wrote. “I never thought of these as political images until I saw Botero’s Abu Ghraib series.” Now, she added, “I see all Botero’s work as a record of the brutality of the haves against the have-nots.”

Botero had dealt with political themes before — notably, the Colombian drug trade — but he always returned to more calming projects afterward. Following the Abu Ghraib series, he produced a series of circus pictures and then rediscovered his longtime love of still life.

“After all this time,” he said in 2010, “I always return to the simplest things.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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