By his own admission, Fernando Botero recognises his almost universal appeal. “People always recognise a Botero,” he says during the transcript of a conversation with Stephane Custot, which was published as a charming introduction to the catalogue-cum-monograph for the retrospective show, A Still Life Retrospective, which opened in Custot Gallery on 12 November.
Over the last half a century, Botero has developed his signature style of furnishing both figures and objects with exaggerated volume; a style that is now so well-known that it bears his name, Boterismo. His boldness also manages to imbibe colours with new adjectives. Wandering around this exhibition I find myself reeling them off in a sumptuous verbal flow: watermelon pink; cucumber green; lemon yellow.
There are other reasons to feel luxuriated as you experience this somewhat landmark exhibition. It is almost exclusively comprised of previously unseen still life works dating back to 1981, which, until now, have remained in Botero’s own private collection. Born in Colombia in 1932, Botero began drawing and painting watercolours as a young child. His uncle enrolled him in a school for bullfighters in 1944, but he was more interested in drawing and painting bulls than in fighting them. Indeed, Botero’s first sold works were watercolours of bulls and matadors.
In 1948, when he was just 16, he had his first illustrations published in one of the most important newspapers in his hometown of Medellín, and three years later, he had his first one-man show in Bogotá. Since then, he has been most recognised for his explorations in volume with his voluptuous female figures or his stocky and rounded horses earning him worldwide acclaim. Until recently, one of his horse sculptures stood in Downtown Dubai, in the shadows of the Burj Khalifa (it has since been replaced by another artwork from the Emaar collection), and this is the first time that his work has been shown on this scale in the entire region.
The spherical lines that Botero uses to form the bodies of his animals are found here in oranges and apples lying atop folds of material, all beautifully depicted in vivid colour. The curves of the female body are also present. Look closely at the violin resting its (her) head on the curtain of an open window overlooking a Colombian village and you can almost feel its vivacity emerging from the canvas. The mandolin, in the centre of the piece titled Picnic, 2002, seems to embody not only Botero’s passion for the human form but also the spirit of his nation, which he holds so dear to his heart.
“It is true that his musical instruments are almost figurative,” says Custot of Botero. “In fact, he began his exploration of shape when he painted the mandolin in the 1950s. That was when he realised he had a talent to do things differently.” This exhibition contains several large-scale works splashing the walls with colour and form and inviting you to consider still life as current and contemporary. It also contains a series of smaller watercolours and charcoal drawings, which offer places of calm for the viewer’s eye, and also exhibit Botero’s undoubtable skill as a draughtsman.
Nevertheless, it is still quite an unusual step to dedicate an entire exhibition only to still life. “Yes, it is a risk,” smiles Custot. “But I always enjoy a risk. Also, I love still life. For me, it is still very modern, there is always a mystery about it.” Botero talks about his love for the genre in the published dialogue at the start of the catalogue. “Art is to do the same thing but in a different way,” he says. “These still lifes are not painting in the style of the great masters, but they are using the same objects and fruit that were used by the masters. Artists today are no longer interested in this theme, but this is a pity because this genre has such a great tradition.”
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch painters used still life to reflect on more contentious subtexts such as religion or class divides. It also gave artists freedom to experiment with the arrangement of elements within a composition of a painting. All these threads are acknowledged in Botero’s work. Without the large and imposing figures, his techniques are more emphasised. His use of perspective varies throughout and, in many works, he adds painterly devices to draw the viewer in, such as an open drawer in the display table or drapery across an open window. In several, a small morsel of food sits on the end of a fork.
“It is an invitation to go further,” says Custot. “In all his paintings, there is a great sensuality and emotion, which is why people continue to love his work. His forms are generous and warm, just like his personality. I also feel that in every piece, they are not only still life, there is something more behind each one.”
The final work in the show is Flowers, 2018. Botero painted the work upon request from the gallery as a nod to the subject matter, for which he became well known in the 1990s. It adds a nice flourish to round off what is certainly an exhibition of museum quality - and Botero’s first in the region.
(Image credits: Courtesy Custot Gallery Dubai and the artist.)
Fernando Botero. A Still Life Retrospective. 12 November – 10 February 10. Custot Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.