Wednesday, June 07, 2017

nude in bogota

I have a touring rule.

If I am visiting a new city and I have limited time, I will choose only one thing to see each day. It gives me the opportunity to learn details -- without flapping around to every sight in town like a culture vulture.

In Bogota, I was lucky. Within three blocks of our apartment was the Botero Museum. If you know of any South American artist, it most likely will be Fernando Botero, Colombia's most famous artist.

And, if you do not know his name, you certainly have seen his work. It is reproduced in restaurants (two are in Rooster's in Melaque) and on refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, and t-shirts. As most people would say, he paints "fat people."

The Botero Museum is filled with millions of dollars of his paintings. He donated them to the nation -- along with his collection of impressionist and modernist paintings. It has been called the finest art collection in Latin America.

When Botero paints a figure, he flattens its plane, giving the figure a robust, opulent Rubenesque feel. But the result is distinctly abstract, as are his use of colors and backgrounds. His "joke" painting of the Mona Lisa is a perfect example.

He takes an artistic icon, much as Picasso did with Las Meninas, and re-works it through his own prism. The figure remains central to the work, but it is distinctly Botero. He even reworked Da Vinci's split horizon Tuscan background into a distinctly Colombian scene. Thus, the volcano.

Even though his style is abstract, his paintings are popular. The popularity is undoubtedly attributable to the humor that shows up in his non-political paintings (he has painted some rather grim message pieces) that make them accessible to viewers without an artistic education. Think of him as the Gilbert and Sullivan of painting.

His style is consistent -- even when painting an animal or a still life.

Some of his works, such as his Mona Lisa, are purposely derivative. He admires the Spanish painter Velasquez, once regarded as the greatest painter in the world. Two of his works in the museum are drawn from Velasquez paintings.

Take this bourgeois family.

Velasquez painted royalty. Not Botero. He paints the common people. But that does not keep him from making sly fun of the family in their bourgeois smugness. The only individual that seems at ease is the dog -- with a typical Botero face.

Botero admires families. Even with his ribbing, the piece has a sense of familial sentimentality -- put on edge by the Eden references. The apple tree. The serpent. All portending a fall from grace -- or recognizing that the fall has already occurred.

The other piece derived from Velasquez comes directly from Las Meninas --Maribola, the dwarf on the right side of Velasquez's painting. And an direct homage to Picasso.

One of Botero's favorite subjects is street dancers. This version is actually set in a dance hall, but it has the same flavor of his street pieces.

Some people do not classify Botero as an abstract painter -- probably because it is very easy to relate to his figures as representational. But there is no mistaking the surrealistic quality of this cardinal strolling beside the water.

A truly representational artist would not have painted such a jarring reflection in the water. Magritte would. Botero did.

Speaking of surreal -- one of the finest pieces in the museum is this sculpture by Salvador Dali. A similar piece is owned by New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Over the years, I have read several attempts at ferreting out the meaning of the piece. Dali usually laughed when asked what it meant. For him, it was a way of simultaneously describing the absurdity of life within a world where objective truth exist. Dali's art was usually as contradictory as his life.

The best we can do is to describe the elements. A beautiful woman is wearing an elaborate inkwell Dali saw in a painting. Under that is a loaf of bread. She has a collar of the film from a cinematic toy surrounded by two ears of corn. Ants swarm from her forehead.

It is a stunning piece in its setting.

That setting is in the wing that houses Botero's impressionist and modernist art collection.

I have been to several museums with larger collections. But Botero collected some of the most interesting pieces painted by these artists.

Almost all of the impressionists are here, including Toulouse-Lautrec:

And Pissarro:

But the majority of the pieces are modernist. Chagall, Ernst, Soutine. And Braque:


Several Picassos:

Grosz, with a fascinating picture story:

And a charming Matisse:

Visiting the museum with my cousin was the high point of the trip. We shared the experience of deconstructing Botero's style and symbols. And, while looikng at the impressionists, we started talking about Woody Allen's Match Point -- how artists can base their work on the masterpieces of others. A point Botero proves well.

I ended up spending close to two full days in the museum -- and I would gladly return for more. The museum is so well-curated, it would be possible to visit there once a week and still find something new. There is also a modern art museum dedicated to the works of Colombian artists that is worth a serious look.

Go to Colombia. Meet Botero. And spend time with the art that he collected for himself. You will be the better for it.

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