The Manner of Fernando Botero

Philippe-Joseph Salazar introduces this essay by his teacher, Marc Fumaroli.

As we all know, creating a cliché is genius. Botero cannot be denied this definition. If one has seen a few of his paintings, one is forced to admit, a little later, of a certain lady or object: “It’s a Botero!” Despite the giddiness and unfairness of this unintentional homage, what painter has not dreamed of a similar honor? A name now marks an entire strand of the visible, as if he were the inventor. Yet what painter who receives such a tribute is not irritated by it? To have created a cliché is to be a prisoner of it, to expose oneself to being understood only in outline, not in detail, in surface, not in depth. The time comes for him to fight against his own cliché, or at least to make its true potential more obvious, lest it close in on him like a trap.

The art of creating a cliché is called, in the Latin tradition to which our painter belongs in so many respects, rhetoric, which, it has been said, through a skillful prestidigitation of signs, makes big things small, small things big. Is this not the best definition of the “cliché” that Botero has associated with his name? Through the cunning magic of his brush, dwarfs become giants, cats tigers, young girls whales, but the giants have dwarf heads, the tigers cat legs, and the whales little girl lips. The universe of implausibility that rhetoric knows how to make plausible and obvious is also that of Fable, of Tale; in short, of childhood. The most cunning ruse meets the naiveté of the “primitives,” the “people,” schoolchildren and schoolgirls, just as the preaching of the Franciscans and Jesuits, based on the marvels of the Bible, the miracles of the Gospels and the Golden Legend, meets, in Latin America, the imagination of Indian crowds filled with “mythologies” long since analyzed by Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The ”cliché” created by Botero, which the public often reduces to his technique of magnification, is less summary than it may at first appear. Since the painter, through this exhibition, is inviting us to do so, let us try to further untangle its workings, to more patiently identify its effects.

If we had to confine ourselves to subject matter alone, nothing could be more academic than Botero’s painting. At this stage, he gives the illusion of being the last one faithful to the two fundamental principles of the classical tradition since the Renaissance: imitation of Nature, and imitation of the Masters. With a docility that makes all betrayals possible, he embraces all the tried-and-tested genres within which these two imitations have traditionally been expressed: Still lifes, with fruit, flowers, musical instruments, meat quarters; Portraits; Landscapes; Genre scenes and Conversation pieces; Nudes; Paintings with religious subjects; Bravura pieces after the Masters. Botero’s adoption of this consecrated repertoire of pictorial “places” superbly ignores all the efforts made by 20th-century painting to escape its grip. This effort, which is that of late European painting, is not his problem. As a Colombian and a South American, he is not part of this chronology, whether we call it decadence or progress, nor of this quest that is both metaphysical and metapictural. He is just as unconcerned with broken traditions: why should he be more royalist than the king? European tradition interests him only insofar as, having created clichés or, if you prefer, categories of the imaginary that survive its death in Europe, it offers him a point of support and a point of departure, common to the painter and his international public, on which his own style, that of a South American painter, stands out. Appropriating the commonplaces that have weathered the test of time—genres and masterpieces that are the objects of a now sterile museographic cult in Europe—he betrays them enough to give them an air of “never-seen,” but not enough not to benefit from the “déjà vu” effect (one of the most powerful forces of aesthetic pleasure) which, when incorporated into the former, communicates the persuasive evidence of the cliché. Renaissance critics had already coined the term maniera to describe this translation-treason, by which the painter’s identity (and that of his Continent) asserts itself against, while at the same time relying on, the tradition of European painting. One of the most famous of these “manners” is that of the School of Fontainebleau, where the problem of French identity in relation to the triumph of Italian painting sought its solution in the same way: like that of the “Bellifontains,” the Boteresque manner presupposes the adoption of a device of “places” already practiced before and elsewhere, but to which the painter, through the distorting play of his lenses and mirrors, imposes his own optics, which is also that of his terroir.

The first of these distorting lenses is obviously the composition of the painting; the distribution of volumes on the flat surface of the canvas, from which space and its quality are born. In the European pictorial tradition, whose genres and “places” Botero pretends to respect so well, space is cosa mentale. This law was not even called into question by the Impressionists, and arguably became even more rigorous with Cubism and the “schools” that followed it. For Botero, space is cosa vitale. Whatever the subject, the central object—human figure, group, bunch of fruit, bouquet of flowers—always seems to aspire to occupy all the space on the canvas, and as a reward; it resists, and in resisting, seems to hollow out. In this respect, a painting not included in the ensemble presented here takes on the value of a program: a naked young person, lying in a filled bathtub, is shown in plunging perspective, at full height; her body, in the water which functions as a magnifying glass, seems to be in the process of occupying the entire bathtub, which practically merges its limits with those of the oblong canvas, metaphorizing the effect of depth created by the turgidity of the body. Conversely, sometimes the central volume is not a full, but an empty space, as in the paintings entitled, Cat Turning the Corner or My Room: in this case, it is this expanding empty space that sinks like a corner, pushing the walls, screens and objects that resist it towards the back and edges of the painting. In Cat Turning the Corner, this conquering corner succeeds in making a cat retreat, leaving only its tail visible; no doubt, had the cat not overcome the pressure, it would have risen into the void to mammoth-cat proportions. It is a similar drama for the bird in the painting of the same title: poised in mid-air on an olive branch, this dove of the Holy Spirit should instead be flying, branch in beak, towards Noah and his ark; instead, in its effort to meet the challenge of the clouds gathering in the background, it seems to inflate itself with air, initiating its metamorphosis into an aerostat. A new version of The Frog that wished to be as big as the Ox. The optical effect doubles its effectiveness with a comic and secretly irreverent apologue. This is because it is always achieved by an alternating rhythm of systole and diastole, of fullness and emptiness in rival expansion.

It would be wrong, we repeat, to reduce Botero’s optics, in other words his rhetoric, to amplification and hyperbole. It is true that, reflected in a Boteroesque mirror, The Infanta and Mademoiselle Rivière, apples and oranges, pears and bananas, coffee pots and musical instruments, the rastaquouère and the nun grow, enlarge and swell, affected by a very particular and, it seems, happy species of elephantiasis. The corollary of these enlarging effects is miniaturization and shortening. If the Infanta’s stature has taken on plebeian proportions, her arms have shrunk in proportion. While Mademoiselle Rivière’s neck has lengthened and widened, her hands have become more like pussy paws with varnished nails. One has become a cone with a rounded tip, the other a three-stage rocket: cone, cylinder and sphere. The anamorphic mirror Botero holds up to the “subjects” he “imitates,” in Nature or in Art, is not uniformly convex or concave: it warps according to a caprice concerted enough to bring the imitated object back to its geometric simplicity rather than its vital momentum. Botero’s summary cliché overlooks a stylistic device even more essential to him than hyperbole and attenuation, namely, metaphor.

The metaphorical game enables the South American painter to translate the plastic vocabulary he borrows from European painting, cosa mentale, from the register of geometry to that of the senses. For Botero, the sphere is perceived not as a sphere, but as the edible species of apple or orange, its subtropical substitute. Hence the apple-faces, apple-palms, apple-skinned breasts, all forbidden fruits. The cone, under the species of the pear: hence pear-infants, pear-coffee makers, pear-blunderbusses. The cylinder under the succulent species of the banana: hence fingers, trunks, thighs and calves, table legs and bed irons, nun’s arms, all pudgy. The composition of fruits—of which a gnawing worm, in one, ironically reminds us that it is also a variant of “Vanity”—thus becomes the start of an inexhaustible metaphorical chain. What is Man Reclining, if not a cluster of fruits on the grass, tropical fruits buried in the sad black sack of European clothing, all dented by their roundness and from which emerge only the head and hands, an apple-head topped with a bowler hat and resting on an apple-palm, while the other hand, nostalgically holding the apple of absent Eve, gives the key, formal and not very moral, to the edifice? As for the pinp standing in The Street littered with tiny apples, what is it but a pyramid of masculine rotundities reigning over lesser feminine rotundities, for sale? Botero’s family-group and couple scenes, as well as his Still Life with Musical Instruments, are all metaphors for the fruit basket. Parents and children in their Sunday best, unlike Adam and Eve, bananas and oranges in negligee, are presented in their pleated, piped paper finery, as if on display at a luxury grocery store. Even the stacked roofs of urban landscapes have the crisp flavor of pink watermelon slices. And the hills and volcanoes of mountainous landscapes are as many green pears, with or without their stalks, and the forests are collections of verdant apples ripening on stilts.

Stylized by Botero’s brush, the illustrated “places” of European Nature and Art become so many stalls in an open-air market of Colombian or Mexican produce, appealing to the teeth as much as the eye. The pictorial material and its pigments compete with the dense, unctuous varnish under the finger of watermelon or avocado rind or, in Still Life with a Red Door, with the paler pastel or fresco colors and velvety surfaces of peach or mango. From fruit ripened to perfection by a generous sun, after having been nourished by the juices, sap and flavors of a tropical terroir, we easily move on to terracotta well mellowed in the oven and colored like Neapolitan Nativity figures, the ultimate popular avatar of Tanagra’s elegant ladies. Many of Botero’s paintings rival, in terms of style, not so much the spiritual nuances of European museum painting, as the sharper art of Latin American folk sculptors, unconsciously heirs to pre-Columbian forms of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic pottery and Indian imagery interpreting in their own way, in colonial times, the European iconography of Baroque Catholicism. None seems to me more characteristic of this little-known aspect of the Boteresque manner than the painting entitled, The Hunter. Everything in this painting seems to be made of glazed terracotta, from the cylindrical tree trunks to the central figure, portrayed with the vigor of an Andean village craftsman who has rediscovered the foreshortened, bumpy realism of his ancestors, the potters of the Inca Age. The “places of invention” borrowed from Europe, including the hat, the hunting costume and the rifle, are in a way phagocytized by a gem of form springing from the tombs that predate Cortes and Pizarro. And this return to the colors, materials and shapes of Mother Earth is also a return to the terrestrial paradise that predates original sin, which began with the introduction of Christianity to Latin America. Botero’s Colombian nuns thrive on the idea of biting into apples. And his Inferno is a paradise of delights, where fires are tongues and the devil is a well-cooked, vigorous genius of the Earth, who lends himself to the game without avarice. The painter can sleep soundly in his room: his canvas is a conjuration that keeps the apple from being anything other than a succulent fruit.

In all the paintings presented here, it is not so much the “local color” anecdote that strikes the viewer, as the South American perspective, all the more vivid because it prefers to assert itself from the side. The anecdote is there, in The Street, as if not to deny the most external register of the Botero “cliché.” But the painter’s South American-ness is best revealed where South America seems to fade the most, in still lifes, landscapes and reformed versions of European icons, rather than in the genre scenes so abundant in Botero’s earlier work, which illustrate city life in the Colombian provinces at the turn of the century. These genre scenes, inspired by the figurines of popular sculptors, are less a reportage of a reality in the past tense, than the way in which this reality, in Latin America, repeats the customs, manners and fashions of Latin Europe, with such an index of anachronism and deformation that they change in flavor and meaning as they pass from one shore to the other, appropriate to their new terroir even by their involuntary ridiculousness. It is not only the denial inflicted on imported mores by a different flora, fauna and light, it is also the heady presence, in the imagination of the actors playing in Europe, of native forms, in their senses, of irrepressible telluric forces that swell, distort, remake, but also revitalize the exsanguinated images emitted from across the ocean. But never does this distorting, possessive perspective impose itself more forcefully than when Botero treats subjects that do not identify themselves as South American, revealing his identity as a painter by the sheer discrepancy of his treatment.

In fact, it was as if Europe’s boredom had created a double screen over the oceanic space in which to project its imagination. Northern Europe projected its own onto the screen of the United States, Southern Europe onto that of Central and Southern America. But once projected onto these initially faithful screens, which passed for “virgin,” like the spring where Narcissus reflects, languages, images, ideas, customs and manners, seized by the genius of the place, and tearing themselves away from the projection device, sprouted, abounded, copulated in a tropical vegetation in which the two Europes no longer recognize their own, fascinated nonetheless by these emanations of themselves that come back to them as other, familiar and foreign, remodeled by grafts, bastardizations and unpredictable syncretisms.

Perhaps this explains why Botero, during a long stay in New York, felt both an accomplice and a stranger. The relationship between the two Americas and Europe is both profoundly analogous and fundamentally different. Analogous, because both have a relationship with Europe that is, let us say, Oedipal, a problem of filial identity all the more complex because, while the mother is European, the unknown father has his roots in Indian tombs or African jungles. Different, because the old European divide between the Anglo-Saxon culture of the North and the Latin culture of the South takes root on the other side of the ocean, and takes on proportions commensurate with the immensity of the Continent. In terms of painting, New York’s quest for revenge on Paris is based on principles that are antithesis to those of South American capitals. Revenge, as a way of looking at things, implies a mirror-like situation, which can turn into fascination or hatred, with the launched image coming back trapped, as fearsome as a boomerang. Botero’s “way,” where we sometimes want to see nothing more than an exotic cliché, is a delight to behold, or even a simple gourmet’s delight. But it all depends on which side of the ocean you are on—on the other side, you cannot help but feel the bitter, insolent, violent edge of his humor beneath the local sap and flavor of his brushwork, the audacity of appropriating the symbol of Madrid pride, The Infanta, or the symbol of French bourgeois pride, Mademoiselle Rivière, from a South American perspective. On this side of the ocean, pleasure and smiles cannot fail to be accompanied by a sense of dispossession. What is more important to Botero—his much-vaunted “sensuality,” which is above all a quasi-mediumistic love of Mother Earth, or his pride as a reverse conquistador, here to challenge Paris on its own turf?

Marc Fumaroli