Fernando Botero at the Museum of Fine Arts
Fernando Botero, After Piero della Francesca (1998)
I did not expect, upon viewing the Fernando Botero show at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, to be so drawn to the earlier works. Brushy, loose and painterly, they are quite different than the smooth opaque paintings with the balloon-like forms that he is known for. Several paintings dating from 1959 to 61 were done in an expressionistic style that, along with their large round forms, remind me of Guston’s work from the seventies. The figures in these works resemble chubby dolls, some of which are grotesque, and none are lifelike. Girl Lost in a Garden (1959) looks like an Henri Rousseau gone sour, and Girl on a Horse (1961) looks like a Mary Cassatt gone very wrong. The face of the latter, cream-colored, is slashed on, with olive and wine colored accents showing underneath. She wears a goofy red hat atop an astounding poof of yellow-green-brown hair. The horse she sits on looks more like a donkey, and she is wearing a quilt-like garment, very loosely painted. The Boy from Vallecas (1959) is a kind of companion piece to Girl on a Horse. Here we look up into the face of a baby, but it is not a baby’s face, it is the face of a wise old man, and yet at the same time it is somehow dead. These early figures, whether doll-like or depicted in the tones of decaying flesh, all look dead, yet intentionally so.
Fernando Botero, Eve (1989)
Botero gave up this loose style in favor of the clean, controlled look he is most known for. But if the later figures are no longer intentionally dead-looking dolls, the type of figure he settled on is unnatural in a different way. These rotund, smooth, opaque and brightly colored figures appear as icons, rather than people of flesh, which is, of course, ironic, since they represent such corpulent people. His Adam and Eve, for example, both from 1989, are highly stylized depictions of obese humanity, which resemble flesh-covered steel. The kneecaps, for example, are near perfect circles, with clean regular lines delineating the contours of the calves and thighs. But the faces are also regularized. If one stands in the middle of the large gallery and pivots around the group as a whole, one finds that it is the same face in each painting, whether male or female, whether young or old, all painted in the same even tones.
Fernando Botero, Ecce Homo (1967)
All but one: Ecce Homo, from 1967. This gorgeous painting seems to perfectly straddle the two types of figures that Botero created. Christ sits on a cube, holding a large feather in one hand and a rope in the other. His body is shaped a little bit like a Henry Moore sculpture, and his limbs, especially the legs, are also reminiscent of Picasso’s surrealist-inspired figures of the thirties. Christ’s body is a bit squarish, along with being rotund, and this unsettled play between square and round is one of the most peculiar aspects of the painting. The forms are so massive that upon close inspection the end of the feather resembles a club, yet integrated with the whole it is just a feather. The palette—mauve, delicate creams, lime and olive green and brown—is stunning. On first glance this work seems to resemble the iconic works more than the early gestural ones, but a closer inspection reveals something else. The iconic works are painted in even opaque layers, but Ecce Homo is brushed on in loose thin layers, with strokes showing. As you approach the painting, it becomes apparent that the volume and mass is created with thin washes of color.
Fernando Botero, The Bath (1989)
The incredible beauty of this balancing of opposites is lost in the iconic works. Some of them, such as After Piero della Francesca (1998), work like grand geometric abstractions, with their large fields of color shapes stacked and balanced. One might point out, however, that the original painting did the same thing on a smaller scale. The Bath (1989) is more unique. Here one enjoys the staging of a particular illusion: that of massive volumes poised in a small space. Unfortunately the effect doesn’t always work, as in After Velázques (2005), which, with the girl’s dress like a winter coat blown out in the manner of a bright blue balloon, looks more like a big cartoon than a painting. A couple of the recent paintings are actually weak. The Street (2000), for example, is a pale and rather awkward reflection of the Balthus painting it pays tribute to. Equally weak is Earthquake from the same year. Much more effective is the pastel Woman Falling from a Balcony (1994), similar in theme to Earthquake and executed with the same palette.
Fernando Botero, Pear (1976)
But the pleasures to be had far outweigh these weaknesses. And the best paintings are divine. Two of my favorites are Pear from 1976 and Pineapples from 1970. Pear is an exercise in volume, mass and delicacy. With just a hint of rose in the lovely yellow, Botero’s pear is marked by three ‘imperfections’. One might be a nibble, and the other two are worm holes, as if the would-be eater of the pear took a nibble, then set it down. We see the worm itself squirming out of one of the holes. Nearly four inches long, it appears tiny on the mountain of a pear. Pineapples is exquisite in handling of paint, color and composition. The pineapples, pale yellow ochre with rust and olive accents, sit on a pink towel draped over a table of deeper ochre. The tableau, around which bees fly, sits in front of a canvas shade. A few partially peeled oranges lie next to the pineapples, along with a gray knife and two forks. The still life is framed by the table, the edges of a dark brown curtain, and a curtain rod of the same ochre from which a gray cord dangles. The drawer to the table is open and a tangle of dark brown string juts out. These gray and brown accents both frame the picture and pin it into place, while the bees create a sense of dizzy swirling.
Overall, these delightful paintings manage to be charming, surprising, unsettling and mysterious all at once.
Mark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.