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Botero at the Musée Maillol

Fernando Botero, BallerinaPhilippe Dagen, in Fernando Botero, un système qui tourne rond [Fernando Botero, a system that turns round] (Le Monde, January 8), reviews an exhibit of recent paintings by that artist (Fernando Botero: Œuvres Récentes), at the Musée Maillol in Paris until March 15. (The museum's Web site is a cool and pretty Flash representation, so I can't give you a direct link.)

Biographies recount that in 1956, at 24 years old, while he was painting Still Life with Mandolin, Fernando Botero had the idea to break with the normal scale of volume and to make bodies and objects considerably fatter. Botero then became one of the most famous artists on the planet. He shows in almost all major cities and enjoys a retrospective almost every year.

His name is linked with an immediately identifiable figure: a very fat woman, with a monumental head, arms, fingers, thighs, stomach, and ass. Her breasts and feet seem very small in comparison. With very few changes, this procedure is also applied to men, animals, fruits, dishes.
Indeed, the last Botero exhibit was at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, from June 21 to September 28, 2003. What I think Dagen really captures about Botero's work is how the artist's commercial appeal makes him uneasy as a critic. Botero, he says, over a 40-year period, by perpetuating his signature style, has created a simple and automatic reaction in the public.
Visitors to a Botero exhibition know what they are going to see before they enter, they find it there, and they leave it again thus satisfied. This is the way it is at the Musée Maillol in Paris, as it was several months ago in The Hague. Everything is done, in each work, so that it can be that way: it exists only by disproportion. One perceives no other stylistic individuality. After having drawn the forms, Botero colors them, staying carefully within the lines. A slight effect of light or shadow underscores the shapes, and it's done.

One can hardly give the Colombian artist grief for having understood capitalism. He diffuses his trademark through all media, as sports and movie stars do, as the photographer David Hamilton used to do with his willowy nymphettes. It is harder to understand the writings that attempt to legitimate this activity either intellectually or historically.
Ouch. (It gets worse.) He then attacks the authors of the catalogues for the Hague and Paris exhibits, who both try to depict Botero as Gauguin in reverse, using European imagery to paint South American subjects.
Botero is happy to parody figures taken from Piero della Francesca, Velázquez, Manet, or Degas. There is nothing in this that is specifically "South American"—if we suppose that that term has any meaning today—or that "disturbs or even reverses the well-ordered trends and genres of art history in the 20th century."

This is more a process of recycling classic sources, especially Picasso, which makes the 1956 story suspect. Fernando Botero studied and imitated Picasso beginning in the late 1940s. At the time, he loved the "Blue" and "Rose" periods. He had only to advance in the chronology to discover the paintings made between 1919 and 1921, in which Picasso plays with disproportion in his treatment of the feminine body. The bathers become colossal, and their hands thick.
If you want an idea of what he's talking about here, take a look at Picasso's Trois Danseuses [Three Dancers], a pencil drawing dated 1919-1920, and Deux femmes nues [Two naked women], a pastel from 1920. (Those links are from the excellent On-Line Picasso Project.)

The hatred of popular appeal and the charges of being derivative remind me somewhat of similar reactions to the J. Seward Johnson show at the Corcoran here in Washington (see posts on September 13 and September 4). Not that I really want to revisit that.

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