Overdoing Rubens: The Plump World of Fernando Botero
Surfing the net, you've probably seen the "y tho" meme featuring a "plump kid dressed in yellow." Actually, as reads the title of the painting, the mysterious kid is a reinterpretation of Raphael's Pope Leo X (or his portrait made by Rubens), though, the statue of Leo X in the church of Santa Maria in Rome seems to be the closest prototype. The author of this amusing picture is the Colombian figurative artist and sculptor Fernando Botero (b. 1932). His plump characters with round heads resemble those of Vasko Lipovac's paintings and sculptures (you can check out our articles on them!).
Fig. 1. Left: “Y tho” meme; right: Pope Leo X (after Raphael), 1964 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 2. Left: Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with cardinals, 1520; center: Portrait of Leo X by Rubens, 17th century; right: Statue of Leo X in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome (Wikipedia.org)
Fig. 3. Fernando Botero, Self-portrait (wikiart.org)
Early Years and Career
Fernando Botero was born in a family of a salesman and a seamstress. His father died of a heart attack when Fernando was four. Growing up in Medellin, Colombia, Botero got inspiration from the local architecture. At sixteen, he began publishing illustrations in the supplement of El Colombiano. In 1948, his paintings were initially exhibited in a group show. Two years later, Botero's first solo exhibition happened. In the 1950s, the artist traveled to Barcelona and Paris. Attending Louvre, he studied works of Renaissance and Baroque masters that would become a basis for his pictures. In 1958, the artist took the first prize of the Salon of Colombian Artists. In the 1970s, he manifested himself as a sculptor. Botero's chubby cats can be seen on the streets of Barcelona, Venice, and other cities. Throughout his artistic career, Botero has had more than 50 exhibitions worldwide. He created his own recognizable manner known as "boterismo."
Fig. 4. Left: Torso, 1988 (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com); right: Rubens, Susanna and the Elders, 1607-1608 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 5. Left: Adam and Eve (Adam), 1968; right: Adam and Eve (Eve), 1968 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 6. Eve (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 7. Dance (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 8. Lovers (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 9. Lovers (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 10. Card player (wikiart.org)
Fig. 11. Lovers (wikiart.org)
Botero doesn't explain how he came to the idea of "large people." He states that elaboration of the style was unconscious: "An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it" (wikipedia.org). Botero's characters, with their impressive shapes, look like an homage to old masters, such as Rubens or Titian. Watching Susanna and the Elders by Rubens, one can notice a Baroque tendency to downsize genitalia and breasts, make them less remarkable, which is opposite to the tradition of Shunga. The same trend is developed in works by Botero, where genitalia are extremely reduced but still visible.
Fig. 12. Tribute to Bonnard, 1975 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 13. Tribute to Bonnard, 1972 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 14. Woman in Bathroom (wikiart.org)
Fig. 15. Before Bath (wikiart.org)
Fig. 16. In the Shower (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 17. Left: Woman Abducted by the Demon, 1979 (wikiart.org); right: Raijin Raping a Bathing Woman, (c.1840), an unknown member of the Utagawa school.
Speaking of the Shunga tradition, we can’t but mention Botero's Woman Abducted by the Demon (1979). Placed in a row with all his bathing Venuses (maybe, the lady was abducted right after taking a bath?), this 'laughing' picture evokes in memory of a Shunga devotee one famous piece where the thunder god Raijin attempts to rape a chubby lady.
Fig. 18. Left: The Venus of Lespugue dated to between 26,000 and 24,000 years ago; right: Venus figurine of Kostenki (Wikipedia.org)
Fig. 19. Venus (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 20. Venus with Cupid (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 21. Venus with a Mirror (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Another association that comes to mind when we look at these large people, majorly females, is the Upper Paleolithic statuettes of women (Fig. 18). Their massive legs and backsides resemble those of Botero's Venuses, though the ancient figurines are endowed with huge breasts and vulvas, which may symbolize their connection to the cult of fertility.
Fig. 22. The House of Amanda Ramirez (wikiart.org)
Interestingly, Botero at least once depicts copulation but hides it behind other figures on the front. The House of Amanda Ramirez (Fig. 22) demonstrates to us a room of a brothel with a courtesan on a man's shoulder and a copulating pair in the background. There's probably a method in depicting lovers. Botero shows them as equal to each other in shape and size or represents a woman as a big and mother-like figure and a man as her kid that can hide in the curves of her body (Fig. 23, 24). This way, it seems, he depicts different stages of relationships: in the beginning, both partners are on the same level, but gradually, living in conditions of household matriarchy, the woman becomes a mother to her beloved one. In The House of Amanda Ramirez, women are smaller than male clients, which can be explained by their dependent position.
Fig. 23. Lovers (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 24. Woman Stapling Her Bra (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 25. The Cascade (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 26. Mother and Child (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 27. Mother with Her Child (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 28. Reclining Nude with Books and Pencils On Lawn (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 29. On the Beach (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 30. Still Life with Oranges (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 31. The Letter (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 32. Left: Fernando Botero, After the Arnolfini Portrait, 1978 (wikiart.org); right: Van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434 (Wikipedia.org)
Cats and Oranges
To conclude, Botero's works have a soothing effect, which stems from what and how he depicts. His favorite animal is a chubby content cat (even in his parody on The Arnolfini Portrait Botero seems to replace a dog with a grey cat), and his favorite fruit is an orange, the all-time symbol of the sun, life, and prosperity. The characters of Botero's paintings radiate vitality and make us recall the times of Rubens and Titian when opulence was considered a trait of the aristocracy. Their round, spherical forms contain some inner harmony that lets the viewer understand why Hokusai depicted chubby lovers in his Shunga series.
Fig. 33. Melancholia (wikiart.org)
Fig. 34. Woman with a Cat (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)
Fig. 35. Cat on a Roof (wikiart.org)
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Sources: Wikipedia.org; wikiart.org; conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com