Fernando Botero: On Looking at Paintings

“The Colombian Family” by Fernando Botero. Oil on canvas. 1973

I trace my first exposure to visual art in 4th grade at Hardin Elementary School. “Picture Memory” was a competition among many school districts. I was on the team. As the paintings were shown during the contest, we had to write down the name of the artwork, who painted it, and the nationality of the painter.

We studied stacks and stacks of 5” X 7” cards with a painting on one side and the information I described on the back. I still remember some of them: Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and Paul Klee’s “Landscape with Yellow Birds.” Our tiny school had two 4th grade teachers. Mrs. Gatewood was my teacher, but our sponsor was Mrs. Hanchey, the other 4th grade teacher. She drilled us in preparation for the contest.

I developed an interest in visual art when I worked at Mercantile National Bank in Dallas in the mid-1980s. The Dallas Museum of Art was a couple of blocks away and I would go there on my lunch hour. There was one particular work by J.M.W. Turner, the British 19th century painter, that I returned to often. For reasons I didn’t understand then (or now) it made me feel better to look at it.

I have been to museums in every country I’ve visited and in many cities in the U.S. They’re always on my Must See list. I love the small town I live in now, but I miss the ability to go to a museum on a moment’s notice.

I saw the Botero paintings three times — once alone, once with Bill, and then with Marty last Tuesday.

I was familiar with Fernando Botero’s work — oversized and exaggerated bodies, massive heads (with small features) and an odd kind of simplicity. These visits have been exceptional; I’ve never been around so many Botero paintings in such a short period of time. He is Colombia’s “Native Son” born in Medellin in 1932. He’s 83, one year younger than my father.

Marty loves Botero; it was such a pleasure to see his reaction. He said of the sculptures, “I want to put my arms around them.” I understood what he meant — you want to take them in.

Like many great artists, he is both praised and reviled by critics. His work is unapologetically representational. I disagree with the charge that his work is simple.

“Basket with Fruit” Oil on canvas. 1973

That fruit — how to describe it? — is the angriest fruit I’ve ever seen. Though fruit can be sexualized in paintings (and represent death or decay) I can’t recall seeing it embody a kind of fury. I looked at this arrangement of fruit a long time. Look where the piece has been cut away from the fruit. It looks like a mouth opened in anguish. The fruits with a bit of the interior showing are like faces on the verge of screaming.

(Or am I angry? Am I on the verge of screaming? I don’t know whether viewers can ever fully separate themselves from the viewing. Are the paintings reflecting my own emotions back to me?)

(If so… geez.)

People think of “fat” when they first see his paintings. You can see why from the image at the beginning of this post.

But that association goes away quickly, at least for me. He paints bodies that are disproportional. The heads aren’t simply “made larger” — he has developed a distinct way of representing people, animals and objects.

“The Colombian Family” (top of post) seems rather straightforward until you notice the enormous flies in the background. You can see them in this image.  The wife’s expression is the one that drew me in first. She seems perturbed as she looks at the person bringing the tea. Why is the steam from the teapot so black, like the discharge from a coal plant? Look at the wife’s weapon-like fingernails. On the back of her hand, a fly appears to be moving toward her wrist.

The husband seems strangely uncomfortable. That cat in his lap looks like it could reach over and claw that odd little girl.

Why is this unsettling portrait titled “The Colombian Family”?

“Ex Voto” Oil on canvas. 1970

Botero explores the complicated relationship between politics and religion in a number of his paintings. “Ex Voto” shows a religious figure in front of a Colombian flag. She’s cradling what appears to be a schoolboy in her right arm. The boy is waving a small Colombian flag.  A man kneels on her left, wrapped by a snake, with his hands folded as if praying. She’s holding money — is she giving it away, or accepting it as a gift?

Notice how the hues of the Colombian flag are repeated in the religious garb of the female figure.

It’s helpful to know (if you don’t already) that ex voto means “… a painting or other object left as an offering in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude, as for recovery from an illness or injury.” (Dictionary.com.) Is Botero exploring the notion of an offering, or should we interpret the painting itself as a kind of ex voto?

The eeriest part of the painting is the woman’s facial expression — she’s dismissing… what? The man praying to her? The child she holds? The symbols of Colombia?

At first glance, the painting seems too overt with its message of condemnation… but becomes more complex as I spend time with it.

“Balcony” Oil on canvas. 1998

I love this painting. The room seems cartoon’ish with its lack of detail — nothing on the walls, nothing on the balcony floors nor on the lower floors. The only opened door shows a naked bulb hanging in the room, shining dimly. This background seems like the ideal setting for this young girl leaning against the balcony railing.

Or is she much older? The more I look at her face… maybe she’s in her 40s or 50s? It’s odd when a character looks like a child and then morphs into middle age.

Here’s a closer view:


The bow in her hair would lead the viewer to believe she’s a child, but what are the brush strokes above her lip — a postmenopausal mustache? What looked at first like the cherubic folds of a child’s face…  on closer inspection, seem to be wrinkles.

Or maybe none of this is correct and she’s a child.

That face is one I could — and did — look at for quite a while. I love that it captures a kind of sadness mixed with fatigue. And what of her eyes? Often, Botero exaggerates the difference between one eye and the other (our eyes are in fact not the same — it’s one of the first things a student learns in art class when drawing faces.) The mismatch of her eyes emphasizes her mysterious emotion.

This painting brings to mind what we discover (as we grow older) about growing older.

Quick story: I flew to Texas when my dad had open heart surgery. O.D. Allen, a woman I knew all of my life (she and dad were in their mid-70s at the time) came to the hospital to visit him. At one point, O.D. (everyone called her by her initials) was talking and waving her hands in the air. Then she stopped. “Look at these wrinkled hands… these old lady hands.” She paused then looked up. “It’s strange, but I still feel like I’m 19 years old inside.”

I was startled by her statement. I was in my early 40s at the time.

But now? Sometimes after brushing my teeth I look in the mirror… the man staring back at me doesn’t match who I feel myself to be. I’m middle-aged, and yet… I feel like I’m still the younger me.

When I was a teenager, I imagined (unconsciously) that older people were somehow qualitatively different. But now I know that older people feel much the same inside as when they were younger. It happens to all of us. It’s natural — and surprising — all at once. I’m 54 years old, and yet that 4th grader is still in me, alive and well, looking at paintings as if for the first time.

4 thoughts on “Fernando Botero: On Looking at Paintings

  1. Hello Bart!
    Thanks for sharing this really useful! I’m from Medellín myself, and I know some of Botero’s art but so much to still understand! Just wanted to make a little comment on Exvoto painting. I’m not sure how much spanish you know but in the left lower corner there is an inscription of gratutude. This is because he won the 1st place in the Bienal of Colteger which used to be Medellín biggest textile factory and probably Colombia’s. He did this paint to acknowledge his gratitude to the company. And donated it to Antioquia’s museum (El museo de Antioquia) in 1975.

    Thanks again! Great to read you!


  2. Bart,
    I don’t quite know what to say to this. There is so much swirling inside me in response, what do I keep and what do I share? Well, I’m glad I am home, where tissues are plenty. Your writings are so moving. I enjoyed being walked through these paintings through your eyes; I saw more for your words than I would have with my own eyes. Funny tho, the fruit hit me as angry as well, before I read your experience with that piece. I love that you are so honest with all of us, so plain and open about yourself, your emotions, your personal introspections. These posts are one lovely journey after another, spanning from one level to the next and the next.
    Thank you for sharing.


  3. I loved this post and learned quite a bit. I just came back from Maui where I saw the Botero sculptures in the Grand Wailea Hotel lobby once again. Indeed, I want to hug them, or lie down next to them on the dias. xoxoxo Jennie O


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