Starweek Magazine

Xtra large can be sexy

- John L. Silva -
My first encounter with a Fernando Botero was in the early seventies. His paintings and drawings of portly Latin American generals, medals weighing on their uniforms looking like pompous buffoons, resonated with me. In those days, many in my generation were battling the various dictatorships in season on the American continent as well as in Southeast Asia.

In a recent interview with Fernando Botero on the occasion of his first major exhibition of paintings and sculptures in Singapore, he confirmed the drawings as his way of satirizing the conditions then.

"Garden City" Singapore has recently been landscaped with 20 of his monumental bronze sculptures, some as high as 25 feet, rotund, and weighing close to two tons each. There’s a plump horse, a plump woman on a horse, a plump man on a horse, a plump cat, standing and reclining plump women, a sphinx, a robust Adam and a voluptuous Eve all greeting you at Changi Airport, the Esplanade Park and Theater, the Fullerton Hotel and Suntec Singa-pore. At the Singapore Art Museum, there’s a plump dancing bronze couple and a huge cat guarding the museum’s entrance. Inside, 70 large size paintings are on display along with 14 smaller bronze sculptures.

With this exhibit–which cost close to S$1 million to install and is insured for over S$50 million–the city-state has gone all-out, securing a renowned artist, presenting a major exhibition and proving handily its being the cultural capital for all of Asia.

You may or may not fancy the artist’s work but you can’t deny the eye-catching effects of Botero’s sculptures and paintings. Though not a retrospective, this extensive body of recent works, when put together, developed new insights for me.

Take the size issue. There is not a skinny figure in Botero’s paintings or sculptures. Buxom dominates his subject matter. But after training one’s eyes to all the plumpness, delightful memories come to the fore. The chubby mestizos in high school. The heavy matronas, coiffed and perfumed, in the pasticerias delighting on their afternoon churros y chocolate. The heavy set, forever smiling family yayas. The big spinster aunt who always had candy to offer. The chubby folks I knew, probably because of all the sweets, were always kind, generous and loving, with the warmest, most smothering hugs of all.

The Botero magic starts to happen when you study the body contours, particularly those of the sculptures, noting their robustness and sensuality. Skinny people aren’t sexy. They’re good for hanging summer wear and plugging diet coke commercials. The overwhelming majority of people in the world are ample to large and that’s who we write sonnets for and make love to. Not perhaps as sizeable as Botero’s subjects, but certainly more inclined towards that direction.

His outdoor sculptures in public spaces throughout the world have increased his audience by leaps and bounds more than the limited numbers that flock to museums. In just the first few days of its opening, tens of thousands of Singaporeans who may not have stepped into the Singapore Art Museum have already paused to appreciate a Botero "monumental" on their way to work, shop, or just while rambling in the park. It’s all in line with his credo that art be accessible to all.

Botero’s strong beliefs in sharing and making people love art has much to do with his having grown up in Medellin (then a small town), Colombia, with no artistic atmosphere. As a young man he only saw black-and-white reproductions of artworks. He remembers seeing his first oil painting much later in Barcelona, Spain. His mother was initially not keen on his desire to be an artist and his first works were not instant successes. His was the usual tale of an impoverished artist who worked hard inspite of all the obstacles.

Valentine Willie, the prime organizer for the Singapore exhibition, recounts Botero asking him what sort of outreach programs there would be for the show. Willie plans a photo contest for children taking the best Botero sculpture shots. Botero urged Willie to gather organizations working for the blind, bring their clients to the park so they could touch and feel the sculptures.

For those fortunate to have eyes, Botero’s paintings are a visual treat. Until recently, Botero used seven colors in his palette. Now he is down to four, with green–particularly a muted emerald shade–being his signature color. This green dominates his canvas, as background sky, as curtains, as landscape, and as foliage. It is pleasing and familiar to Botero and to us who share a similar tropical environment.

The Latin subjects are familiar too, more familiar perhaps to Filipinos than to other art lovers in the region. There are priests, bishops and cardinals. There’s St. Michael the Archangel, Our Lady with the Christ child, politicians and generals. And, reminiscent of our Filipino past, there are men sporting Spanish bigotillos (pencil moustaches). That’s as much as he wants to reveal of his cultural background. He is aware how art in former colonies takes on indigenous, nationalist strains but believes art should be independent.

"…I want my painting to have roots," he says, "because it is roots that give meaning and truth to what one does. But at the same time, I don’t just want to paint South American peasants. I want to paint everything–subjects like Marie Antoinette, for example. But I always hope that everything I do will be touched by the Latin American soul."

Botero hasn’t forgotten his roots. In 2000, To make sure that fellow artists and art lovers of his hometown don’t have to endure black-and-white art reproductions like he did, he donated 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures to a museum in his hometown of Medellin and to another in the Colombian capital of Bogota. The works not only included his own but those by Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Chagall, Miro, Klimt, Dali, Henry Moore, Matta, Rauschenberg and many others. Overnight, his country gained a formidable art collection.

Except for several paintings that feature a corpulent President and his First Lady sporting sashes and blasé looks, the earlier political Botero paintings I knew were not in this exhibit. He actually had a recent show in Paris, focused on the continued violence and civil unrest still permeating his country caught in a drug war. Ten years ago, Botero himself was almost kidnapped in Bogota and the next year, a bomb destroyed a huge bronze sculpture of his in Medellin, killing 27 people and injuring many others.

In many ways, the selections for the Singapore exhibit are a welcome sight for viewers weary of the world’s sad events. The violence in both our countries is all too incestuous. It was a reprieve hearing Botero’s musings and following him around to smile at the whimsy and the color in his paintings and the sensuality in his sculptures.

For in the end, art can engage a person to his surroundings, or it can simply stir a delight in living. If you can get away for a long weekend, don’t miss the Botero exhibition. It’s a celebration of humanity.
* * *
John L. Silva is Senior Consultant to the National Museum of the Philippines. The Botero exhibition in Singapore continues until Feb. 27, 2005. The author’s full interview with Botero and his wife, Sophia Vari, a painter and sculptor currently exhibiting at the National Art Gallery Malaysia (until Jan. 30), will air in a "Trip ni John" special on ABC-5.











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