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Pera Museum Welcomes Colombian Artist Fernando Botero's First Encounter with Istanbul
Colombian artist Fernando Botero poses in front of a self portrait at the Pera Museum in Istanbul, during a preview one day before the opening of his first exhibition in Turkey. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ISTANBUL.- Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation Pera Museum welcomed one of the most exceptional artists of the 21st century, Fernando Botero in İstanbul for the very first time with an exhibition comprising a selection of 64 works.

Botero’s art is not exclusively a narration or a representation, but brings with it the force of an inner vision, of his knocking on life’s door. Protecting his Latin and Colombian identity, Botero has succeeded forming his own style nourished not only by folkloric elements but also by the works of grand masters, and has poured his rich inner world into his works with a sophisticated, humorous and wise approach.

Botero has brought a new interpretation to the aesthetics of our times, and the exhibition depicts this interpretation in six sections – the circus, the bullfight, Latin American people, Latin American life, still lifes and versions from past masters of the history of art. The works of the artist contain many references to his own culture and life, and in a unique style they question the concept of beauty in our century.

From acrobats to matadors, dancing people to naked lovers, cardinals to sad clowns and to musicians, the exhibition invites us to discover Botero’s lyricism and his enchanting world.

Still Life
Still-life paintings play a crucial role in Botero’s work. By the end of the 60s they were regularly nourishing the seduction of an image that went beyond the simple composition of fruits or objects arranged on a table, often revealing a fully fledged world – a world rich and diversified, governed by well-entrenched rules.

“When I paint an apple or an orange, I know that it will be possible to recognize them as mine and that it is I who painted them, because I seek to give to every painted element, even the simplest, a personality that comes from a profound conviction.” Thus, for Botero the overriding issue is to confer an authentic image even to inanimate objects, to still-lifes.

In principle, the elements that make them up are enclosed in a restricted space, made even tighter by the presence of heavy tables that flaunt their rounded volumes and sizes as in Still Life with Lobster, and in the elegant Still Life with Fruits , where Cézanne’s influence is discernible in the studied complexity of the layout and in the abundant drapery that acts as a biding agent for the composition.

The claustrophobic sense of this “scenic cube” is often overcome by the inclusion, within the painting, of a reflecting mirror, or an opening that allows the gaze to look outwards. This is very clear in Still Life with Watermelon where Botero utilizes the reflections of the objects and the presence of a door on the background to lighten the architecture of the painting and to give it depth, and to create, not only chromatic balances (the blue of the jug with the blue of the sky) but also structural ones by focusing on the contemporary presence of horizontal elements on the foreground set against the verticality of the room.

It is but rarely that in Botero still-life paintings correspond to open air compositions such as in Picnic , which offers to the observer the possibility to admire landscapes, which are, indeed, very unusual for the artist.

One of the elements that best characterize Botero’s paintings is his ability to combine his original Latin-American culture, as nourished by the penchant for the hyperbolic and the fantastic, with the European one in an outstanding manner. Europe is obviously referred to through the much loved painting tradition of the likes of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo, Mantegna, Velázquez, Goya, key reference points during his travels in Italy and Spain in the early 60s. It is the works of these masters that he will learn to admire in the halls of the Prado and the Louvre. These were successively flanked by Dürer and Rubens, Manet and Cézanne, as a testimony of the intellectual curiosity of Botero and his willingness to establish an ideal relationship with the great European art of the past and of the modern age, whose masterpieces have acted as beacons in the development of his art right from the outset. It is significant, in this light, his seeking inspiration, as early as in 1959, from Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

The history of art is a broad and practically unlimited hoard of images to be ransacked but not imitated. Botero does not imitate: he recreates in his own way, producing images that demand their own autonomy.

His approach is surely not the imitation of the works of the masters or the mechanical replica of a model. What we have are full reinterpretations in which Botero wishes to pay homage, also by applying a dose of benevolent irony, to very famous paintings such as La Fornarina by Raffaello or The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck, or Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. He thus recreates their spirit after many centuries by presenting them in contemporary terms and by aligning them to his original idea in terms of volume, space, sign and color.

“I dared painting the corrida (bullfight) because I was very much familiar with the theme. It is impossible to paint if there doesn’t exist a strong relation between the subject and one’s soul. This relationship is absolutely necessary inasmuch as it gives you a sort of moral authority. That authority I had for the theme, flowed out from the sangre (‘blood’) and from my own life.”

The bullfight was a theme that couldn’t be neglected in Botero’s work – a fascinating and highly suggestive theme that is deeply engrained in the tradition of his people.

Obviously, what truly mattered for Botero is not only the combat between man and bull but all that takes place around this laic ritual: from the ‘taking of the habit’ on the part of the protagonists celebrated in the splendid elegance of their costumes and seen as modern-day heroes, to the entry on horseback of the matadors and picadors into the arena with the crowd that throng the stands applauding their idols – everything seems to be part of an extraordinary popular pageant where the violence that is inherent in the bullfight itself appears to be alien or experienced in a natural way even when at its goriest as in Dying Bull (p.??). The attention of the artist is focused on the spectacular choreography rather than on the tension of the moment, on the blood that is poured on the arena.

As is his wont, Botero in these works relies on that felicitous process of contamination involving color and light, pictorial surface and substance itself of that kind of painting that underlie many of his painting, identifying himself with the theme to such an extent as to immortalize himself as a torero in the Self Portrait.

Botero fell in love with the circus in Mexico, where he often spent the winter months. It was there that he became enthralled by the characters that crowd the circus, loving the colors, the movement, the life and the stories that are the stuff of the circus show – a show both archaic and new that has been immortalized by artists of the calibre of Picasso, Léger, Chagall and many more.

“A truly beautiful and timeless subject,” Botero has often said. He stages, narrates and illustrates circus life to its fullest, highlighting the work of the circus hands as they get the show ready as in Circus (p.??), or focusing on those moments when everyone is taking a break before or after the show, when the members of the large circus family rest for a while and share a moment of relax and conviviality as in Circus People with Elephants (p.??). Botero, though, offers us, above all, a gallery of very beautiful portraits, from Pierrot to Harlequin, from the equestrienne intent on her show to the acrobat-cum-contortionist, from the lion and tiger tamer to the clowns on their highly improbable stilts, from the elephant to the horses and camels… Botero offers us a gaily-colored and kaleidoscopic universe. The characters are captured during their performance, with maximum concentration showing on their faces, while the scenes evoke the distillation of the moment as mirth blends and alternates with melancholy, which are both inherent to the circus show.

Botero, in fact, passes no judgment but simply describes in great detail without showing any indulgence or cruelty, and does not mock or ridicule. His images apparently amusing, funny and ironic reveal – for all those who are willing to go beyond a first cursory glance – meaning, and his circus suddenly becomes the great metaphor of life.

Latin American Life
In the works focusing on this subject matter, Botero insists on the vitality of man that cannot be extinguished even in the direst conditions of misery, in shantytowns, in places where life has no apparent reason… In Botero’s paintings there is a “people’s” background, a loyalty to his own Latin-American culture, a vivid memory of his childhood fancy.

No matter how much his style has been perfected and enriched through the contact with Europe, the characters of civic and private drama, the daily grind, the whorehouses, the dancing fetes, the priests and cardinals are and continue to be tenaciously present in his work.

Botero freezes on the canvas scenes from the daily life of Colombians – scenes often dramatic as in Street, where a runaway is being chased by the policeman amidst total indifference, or as in Suicide, where a desperate man plunges to his death from a window. While Botero also paints scenes of working life, such as the outstanding Sewing Workshop where each character is deeply intent on carrying out his or her task in an atmosphere of intense commitment, he also focuses his gaze on an instance of ironic meditation, as in The Seminary where five young priests are captured together as if posing for a rather unusual family portrait.

And, of course, there are moments of entertainment as in Dancing, where couples dance away in a dancing hall, or in the crowded and more problematic End of the Party where in the pink confetto atmosphere, life passes against a backdrop of sexual intercourse, music and cigarettes and where the much flaunted existential promiscuity is but a way to stress the inner solitude of the individual.

Latin American People
“You can find in my painting a world I got to know during my youth. It is a sort of nostalgia, which I have turned into the central theme of my work. […] I lived fifteen years in New York and a long time in Europe, but this has changed nothing in my Latin American approach, nature and spirit. The communion with my country is total.”

The points of reference for the young Botero were inevitably the multicolored boards and sculptures of colonial art, the direct and essential language of popular art and, with regards to the pureness of form, pre-Colombian art. These elements continue to be present in his paintings. They are the traits of a poetics that has refined over the years but which contain a cultural heritage that continues to be as spontaneous as ever, generating the same narrative force and impeccable finish.

A recurrent feature in this group of works is the single individual, mostly female figures, such as the stern Standing Woman, or the monumental girl of Woman in Bathroom. The posture of the women is memorable and so are their clothes and gazes. Through them, Botero is able to forcefully show their personality and to tell us something about their lives, thoughts and desires.

These are flanked by paintings featuring couples, such as Man and Woman, respectable middle-class persons who meet on the street almost as if it were a still from an early 20th century film, or Lovers , a man and woman who, naked, passionately embrace each other in a seedy hotel room.

Also impressive are the group subjects that reveal the sheer existential variety of a community: from the joyous mirth of At the Park, where the background provides a glimpse of sheer beauty, to Three Women Drinking which is dominated by sadness, and The Sisters, an outstanding work featuring five women of varying ages whose poses reveal their personalities as well as the lives they have led in what is a disenchanted portrait of an age.

Istanbul | Pera Museum | Fernando Botero |

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