Everything about the Fernando Botero exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art is big.
A painted pineapple, under attack by ants, looks ready to burst from its skin. A mandolin bulges inside a still life. A thick horse trots with giant hooves. A busty vase holds stalks of flowers. And the people are huge—particularly their unavoidable, often bare and buoyant backsides that pop off the canvas, begging the viewer to cup them with both hands. The Colombian president and First Lady are big, as are a big prostitute, a big cross dresser, a big ballerina. Some would say these people are fat, but many are more stout than flabby. The big babies, for instance, have bulging muscles, and even fat Jesus has a six-pack. It is as if Botero took reasonably sized people, animals and objects and blew air into them, inflating them to extreme proportions. Occasionally, however, he’ll offset the immensity with a tiny detail: a little mole on a woman’s giant ass, a delicate nibble out of a swollen pear.
The sheer size of The Baroque World of Fernando Botero is big. More than 100 larger-than-life paintings, drawings and sculptures from Botero’s private collection sprawl across the museum’s entire third floor.
My first encounter with Botero’s work was while eating an appropriately large meal of arepas at a Colombian restaurant in Ecuador. The restaurant owner, Don Miguel, had placed Botero prints under the glass top of each table. I ate atop what, at the time, I considered the fat, jolly, almost cartoonish world of Fernando Botero.
But a closer look at Botero’s work shows all is not cheerful. Despite the whimsical features and bright, happy colors he employs, his subject matter is often serious: war, domestic violence, displaced people and the daily life of Latin Americans.
The museum does a fine job of educating the audience with signage throughout the exhibit that explains Botero’s artistic background and influences. Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, he now has studios in New York City, Paris and Bogota. Some of his influences include Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera and Peter Paul Rubens. He’s prone to making versions of other painters’ works, such as his bulbous rendition of Diego Velazquez’s “The Boy from Vallecas” and of Edgar Degas’ dancers in “Dancer at the Barre,” wherein Botero’s fleshy ballerina is spilling out of her tutu. Yet I couldn’t find—and perhaps I missed it—an explanation of why Botero chose to go so big.
One museum visitor said the hugeness of Botero’s works made them seem more real to her. “They’re right there,” she said.
Botero told the Colorado Springs Independent last year that he’d been inspired by the “volumetic art” of Florence, Italy, and the idea of creating volume on a flat surface. “It was my desire to create the exaltation of life through volume and sensuality,” he told the paper.
The man shouldn’t really have to explain himself. Yet, viewers have to take care not to let the “fat people” appeal of his work undermine his artistry. His painting is smooth, refined, with nearly invisible brushstrokes. His ideas are rich and multifaceted. He’s no caricaturist. He’s an artist—one hard to ignore once seen.