There are many secrets in the world of art, and though the majority is about the private lives of famous artists, a few most exciting ones are related to their art. Historians still debate if Mona Lisa is a woman or Leonardo’s self-portrait in disguise and whether Michelangelo’s David has lost his staff-sling or never had it. The common denominator for all those secrets is that they are about artists who had passed away before the invention of Facebook and Instagram. Today nothing is a secret, not for long, anyway (with “long” itself reduced to days and hours rather than decades or years), except for Trump’s collusion with Russians, but how it is related to art, we are yet to have a shocking pleasure of discovery. If Jeff Koonz is reading this, hey, man, that’s your sculptural Oscar in-waiting.
There is one big secret though that has been around for decades, and it is a secret of a living artist, who just turned 88. Happy birthday, Fernando Botero!
I am sure you know his work.
He still has not revealed why he paints and sculpts Falstaffian people and morbidly obese sparrows.
It’s not that he’s never been asked. He just never cared to reply.
Today I will reveal his secret which I have discovered while dining out at a Spanish tapas place in London that had faux Botero frescoes all over its walls. After a scrumptious meal and a healthy dose of Pedro Ximenes, having watched the frescoed walls for two full hours, I had an epiphany.
I could eat and drink, being surrounded by Botero characters, just as comfortably as I would manage without them.
Read on to understand how central this seemingly simple idea is for the critical discourse on Botero, to which I am proud to have contributed at least twice in this blog, and once it was not bad reading at all.
I have always liked Botero, even if occasionally I found him too commercially minded and eager to come half-way to meet the public taste – a sin which, according to Clement Greenberg, sends the offender to the Limbo of minor artists without the right to appeal. Perhaps, it is my Soviet past: Fernando reminds me of a well-fed Lenin, and I was indoctrinated to love Lenin when I was a kid.
I know you’re still trying to make sense of how Botero’s non-interference with digestion is in any way related to his painting colossal people.
The answer is simple: the viewer’s self-identification with his work is absent.
As you watch his fat characters, who reside on a planet likely ruled by their local McDonalds tycoons, enjoying or suffering the same kind of stuff that we detest or relish here, you don’t connect. No one in the painting is like yourself or reminds you of anyone you know.
When you don’t self-identify, you become an objective explorer. You can study Botero’s men and women free of prejudices, assumptions, or barriers erected by the notions of decency, without all that past baggage that tends to lock you inside your pre-existing concepts and beliefs whenever you look at people who resemble someone you know. Botero’s people are like fish in a fish-tank. They live their lives, happily or not, while you struggle or saunter through your own. You and the Boterians exist in totally independent worlds. It makes you feel safe without the discomfort of becoming a voyeur. And as you are safe, you don’t choke on your food! Bingo!
Or, perhaps, a half-bingo. Botero’s obesity device might seem a divine blessing, were it not also a curse.
When you look at Botero’s mundane scenes, or his Christ passions, or his circus clowns, you start discovering stuff you wouldn’t be able to see in these paintings, were they done with “normal” people.
Yet, there is a but about these butts, a flip-side to this golden coin.
To start discovering new stuff, to begin getting new ideas, people need to spend some time actively contemplating a Botero’s painting. And to watch it actively, viewers need to get engaged first. The customary, and easiest way for a picture to engage viewers is to hook them up onto something they identify with. And this is when Botero’s paradox happens: there’s no identification. Curiosity helps, yes, when people get exposed to Botero first time. But repetition kills curiosity, so in a room full of Boteros it evaporates faster than a glass of beer left on a table in a London’s pub on Friday night.
So what do you do? How do you resolve the paradox?
Here’s the trick: you keep reading this blog for it is the blog of revelations, but without the apocalyptic ending.
There is a single commandment only: share it with friends if you like it.