Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Monday, January 31, 2005

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Botero: The Interview

by Carmen Nge
Pictures by Angelia Poon

Some call him the Maestro. Some consider him a living legend because he commands millions for his artwork and his exhibitions worldwide draw crowds in their tens and hundreds of thousands. Some have dubbed him “one of the most original contemporary artists alive today.”

Fernando Botero in person, however, is extraordinarily unassuming and, at 72, is disarmingly youthful.

This is a man who wakes up every morning (when he is not traveling) and spends 7-8 hours a day in his studio, making art. How does he feel working so hard and being alone for so many hours? Botero beams when he says this, his eyes lighting up: “Happy”

For Botero, art, passion and life are intertwined, locked in a relationship that sustains and inspires him, that gives him reason to keep doing what he clearly loves.

“All my life I have been doing painting and sculptures. I keep going because in art you never retire. I don’t know any artist who has retired. It’s the curiosity of what you can do. It is the desire to learn something everyday because in art you have the philosophy that even when you take a small step, you understand that will make you better. Art gives you such a pleasure, there is such excitement to work in art that you do it everyday because it gives you more pleasure than any other activity.”

The luxury of being able to do what one loves without having to worry about eking out a living from it is something Botero has earned. Born to a middle class family in Medellín, Colombia in 1932, Botero started out like the typical misunderstood, struggling artist.

As a young man, he spent countless hours drawing and later, painting out of boredom. He was later thrown out of his Jesuit-run secondary school for drawing naked women for the newspaper El Colombiano’s literary supplement and for writing a subversive article on Picasso, which irked the school’s religious authorities.

Botero was undaunted. He continued with his artistic endeavours—painting bullfights he attended, copying images of the French revolution taken from his father’s bookshelves but injecting them with the flavour of Medellín, and sketching prostitutes and their patrons in the brothels of Lovaina, a working-class quarter in Colombia.

At the tender age of 18, Botero held his first solo exhibition of watercolours at a photographer’s studio in Bogotá; by all accounts it was a resounding success. Critics were favourable and he sold several works. A subsequent solo in Bogotá, which showcased work during a ten-month stint in the northern Colombian fishing village of Tolu, proved to be even more successful, winning Botero a healthy grant in the process.

Colombia could not contain Botero forever. Barely 20 years old, the artist found himself bound for Europe, hungry to feast his eyes on the works of the great masters. Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Florence, Tuscany—Botero soaked in the artistic ambience of each city. Apart from attending art school, he also copied the artworks of the masters: Titian, Velasquez and the frescoes in Italy.

“When you copy a painting you see it more. You understand a painting more than if you just look at it,” Botero explains. “When you copy, you are able to learn the technique. It is very important to connect the mind with the hand.”

The visible presence of art within the European cities he visited evidently had an impact on Botero beyond the canvas. It would later shape and hone his interest in public art, particularly his monumental sculptures, and influence his thinking about the relationship between art, urban spaces and the public.

“A city without art is dry. When there is more art in a city, the more gentle, the more beautiful the city is,” Botero muses. “Paris is a city full of art. Or Rome or Florence or Venice. Even if you don’t look very carefully, it still gives a gentle feeling to a town to have art around.”

He thinks that it is important to place art not only in public spaces but also in the most visited parts of the city or town. In the past, Botero has had his monumental sculptures exhibited along Park Avenue and Central Park in New York, in the Champs-Elysees in Paris, along the Paseo de Recoletos in Madrid and throughout Venice. For his Singapore show, his huge bronze sculptures greet visitors to the Esplanade, Fullerton Hotel and Changi Airport. For Botero, art should not confine itself to the art gallery or museum.

“Very few people go to museums actually,” explains Botero. “My monumental sculptures is art that comes to meet the people. When you confront people with art, I think that is a good thing because it creates some intellectual interest in a spectator that would otherwise never go to the museum.”

Governments, institutions and corporations are not oblivious to this truism. One of Botero’s sculptures—what a friend calls the ‘big bird’—has been sitting outside a financial institution in Singapore for the past 10 years, acting as a recognizable landmark for the bank. In New York, two of his pieces are in situated in the Time-Life building. The Spanish and Puerto Rican governments have both purchased Botero’s monumental sculptures, using them to decorate their cities.

Botero’s most famous—and controversial—public sculpture is located in his hometown of Medellín. In June 1995, his statue of a huge bronze dove was bombed by suspected urban guerrillas. Botero was particularly disturbed by the incident because the bomb was placed between the legs of the dove but camouflaged with a bunch of flowers; it went off during a street party, killing 25 people and injuring another 200.

A piece of the sculpture was broken off but strangely enough, did not fall from its pedestal. “It became a cubist sculpture from hell,” Botero said, wryly. In an act of defiance, he asked that the bombed dove remain—with its broken piece welded in place—and he donated another dove to stand next to the first one. “Now in Medellín they have the one that is bombed and the other one and it is called Violence and Peace,” he added.

The artist’s desire to respond to the problems in his home country has resulted in an astonishingly generous donation of an estimated $250 million worth of artworks to museums in Medellín and Bogotá. Works by Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Dali, Miró and a whole host of other artist luminaries now provide ordinary Colombians the opportunity to see original works by great artists up close.

Additionally, Botero himself also began working on a series of paintings depicting a different face of Colombia: that of the violent and brutal drug-fueled war ravaging Colombia in the past 40 years. His style is unchanging but instead of placid and satisfied looking men and women, these newer works depict the dead bodies of rotund Colombians after a massacre, the knifing of innocent women and cherubic children, and countless victims of kidnappings, murder and torture. These stark portrayals of Colombia’s grim realities are a far cry from the images of serenity and sumptuousness that are currently on exhibit in Singapore.

“I have been painting the gentle face of Colombia all my life because I have Colombia in my heart but in the last 6 or 7 years I felt like almost a moral responsibility to do a series of paintings that show the violence in Colombia and the drama of my country,” he explains. “My idea is to create a small reflection on people about the terrible thing that is violence. One day people will see it in the National Museum of History of Colombia and they will remember this time as something awful that shouldn’t happen again.”

Botero, who will not be profiting from these works because they will all be donated to the National Museum in Colombia, sees himself as continuing a long tradition of depicting social issues in art. “It’s in the tradition of art to do things that sometimes become identified with a moment in history. For comparison, the obvious is Goya. Then you also have Picasso and Guernica,” Botero elaborates.

Despite his renewed sense of social consciousness, the Colombian is still steadfastly an artist first and a visual documentarian second: “In my paintings I deal first of all with the responsibility I have as a painter to do a good painting. Even though I am depicting something that is awful and not [morally] right but the composition, the colour, the technique and the drawing itself has to be first rate because it is art before everything else. My responsibility is to do art, only then comes the dramatic.”

Botero’s adherence to the essential basic components of art—to form, to line, to colour and composition—is, in many ways, a throwback to a classical tradition that eschews random experimentation for its own sake. This is an artist who takes seriously the study and execution of great paintings.

“You cannot replace paintings with theatre,” he says, when referring to recent trends in installation and performance art. “That’s why I think today many artists have lost their bearings. An artist always works towards the idea of creating art that would be there for ever, something that will give aesthetic pleasure. This is not the case anymore,” Botero laments. “The rules of the game have changed.”

For Botero, art has suffered over the years because universal aesthetic markers of appreciation have ceased to exist. Chief of these is the “idea of defying time”, which Botero considers an important characteristic of art. In his view, artists are too busy trying to keep up with current trends and as such, they do not strive to seek out their uniqueness—the mark that identifies them as artists.

What makes a Botero? His artistic landscape is replete with extremely large and rounded objects. Some audiences call Botero subjects “fat” while other, more politically correct and polite, folk identify them as “chubby” or “full-figured.” There is, however, no denying that Botero people and objects are intensely recognizable.

Art critics and Latin American luminaries have all tried to understand and decipher the enigma of Botero’s world. They pontificate and theorize about his love of “fat” people, animals and things. The artist himself calls it “the exultation of volume” and he says that it took him 10 years to rationalize his preoccupation with size, proportion, volume and “to find coherence” in his work and his style. “I was 35 years old when I painted my first Botero,” he quipped.

Some artists never discover their style, their mark, their identification stamp in the immense world of art. Botero considers himself lucky for having found it while relatively young.

“It’s a very important and difficult thing when you can give to your work an imprint that is recognizable. It is very important because when you look at all the artists in the museum, there are artists you recognize because they have a very clear colour and style that is recognizable. You can have painters that can do everything well but the masters, they are the ones who always have a very strong position. When you see a Caravaggio or Goya, it is very clear that it is a Caravaggio or Goya. Their followers are those without the courage to be extreme.”

This interview appears in Off the Edge, January 2005 issue.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

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Botero in Singapore: Review

by Carmen Nge
Pictures by Angelia Poon

Full-figured and fleshy, plump women have finally found a worthy lover of their curvaceous, sensuous volume. His name is Fernando Botero.

In Singapore, a city that celebrates model-thin females in bone-hugging clothing, the gleaming bronze Botero women sunning themselves in nude splendour all along the Esplanade harken back to a time when ample girth symbolized health, wealth and beauty. These are women who scoff at their anorexic-looking sisterly counterparts from the island city; these are women who are more confident about their naked roundedness than the waifs who stiletto down Orchard Road in their ubiquitous spaghetti-strap tops, swinging their bonded, coloured hair.

There is a certain something about these monumental bronze sculptures that invite scrutiny—perhaps it is their unabashed state of undress, perhaps it is their mammoth size, perhaps it is their aura of whimsy. Perhaps it is all of the above contextualized within a national space that is entirely opposite: small, serious, sedate Singapore.

Although signage warned the public to stay away from the sculptures, children delighted in trying to clamber up Botero’s cherubic Horse (1999) and tickling the soles of the Man on a Horse’s (1999) feet. Adults giggled as they posed next to gloriously nude Adam and Eve (2003); one man even tried to touch Adam’s bronze privates but it was a little beyond his reach! It’s not often one observes this much playful engagement with public art, beyond the usual snapshot moment.

If, as Botero says, his monumental sculptures are designed to bring art to the people, to engage them, then his largest solo exhibition in Asia has certainly achieved its purpose.

Twenty of his public sculptures are scattered throughout Singapore but the majority of them—16 to be exact—are located along the Esplanade, set against a panoramic skyline of brilliant blue sky, gently undulating waves and man-made concrete and metallic structures.

Their location befits them: graceful, well-rounded women stretch out on their bellies and backs, soaking in and beautifully reflecting the bright shafts of sunlight that dance on their ample bosoms and twinkle off of their bountiful bubble behinds. These are women who enjoy their own presence, wrapped up in their own private joys—Reclining Woman (1993) with her eyes half-closed is sluggish in the noonday heat as flies flit between her armpit and abdomen; Woman with Cigarette (1987) has a crusty air about her, and a decidedly coiffed hairdo, but she is cool and nonchalant despite the fallen leaves and twigs nestled between her thunder thighs and the stones lodged between the bend in her knees.

Reclining Woman (2003) is Mother Nature personified. Set in the middle of a grassy clearing and against a magnificent, majestic heritage tree (these are very old trees that are protected from damage and demolition by the state due to their historical status) this bronze bucolic beauty has her face turned up towards the sun and a blanket loosely draped in front of her. Although Botero insists his monumental sculptures are not site specific, the verdant green locale seems made for her plenitude. The solidly smooth sculpture reflects the dappled vista in a manner that pleases the eye, and its size—though large in a more enclosed space—is perfectly proportionate to the massive tree that provides her ample leafy shade.

Alternatively, Woman with Fruit (1996), which is placed along the waterfront, appears almost mermaid-like in her pose. Sunbathing al fresco, her gaze is out to sea and the fruit in her hand almost like an offering to Poseidon, God of the sea. Her hair is as perfectly wavy as the salty water, its undulating shape mirroring the seascape but also suggesting a serpentine creature and the fruit, its Garden of Eden-like temptation. Her legs are crossed in a whimsical pose, almost playful, although her face is curiously serious, even enigmatic.

These are Botero’s women—resplendent, redolent, rewarding their viewer with more than just their ample hips and firm breasts. These are women who invite us to forget their femaleness (for their sex is never evident, lost between their massive thighs), to forget their nudity because what engages the senses is the quality of their materiality, their capaciousness. From shiny blue black to warm glowing brown with slightly golden-veined undertones, the bronze used by the artist has a character and a life of its own. Just like his women.

Botero’s celebration of the fecund female figure does not only exist in the open air and the realm of public art but also within the more traditional gallery space. Some 70 paintings and 14 small sculptures are currently on exhibit at the Singapore Art Museum, showcasing a range of Botero’s work, from the 1970s right up to our present decade. It is here that we see what makes Botero unique, what makes a gallery viewer gush to this writer: “I love his paintings because they are like nothing I have ever seen before.”

Carlos Fuentes, one of Latin America’s most prominent men of letters, argues that “Botero’s women are not fat. They are space.” However, Botero’s paintings capture a sense of space in a way that is different from how his sculptures occupy volume. In their three dimensionality, his monumental sculptures are synonyms for depth—their skeletal insides radiate outwards to extend space while their clay mold and bronze skin covets this space into a specific shape. Alternatively, his paintings, in their two-dimensionality, are more confined by the planar form; since they cannot extend in every direction, their suggestion of space has to come from within the frame.

What is unique about Botero’s paintings is they do not adopt a Renaissance sense of perspective. His figures are flat; his still life is gargantuan but not in relation to their surroundings—his Pear (1976) is enormous not because the table it sits on is small. The fruit is large because the vividness of its golden-brown colour and its centrality on canvas make it so. It is huge because it fills the frame. Additionally, it is immense because the teeth mark on its smooth skin is so tiny. Hence, we recognize something is large not in relation to its surroundings, but in relation to itself. What is important, the artist seems to imply, is not how the objects in a painting occupy space but how they themselves embody space.

This notion of space has become universal in Botero’s work, even though he takes great pains to imbue his work with a Colombian flavour and context as well, as seen in his bullfighting series—Picador (1987) and The Death of Ramon Torres (1986)—and works like The Seamstresses (2000), which captures the multi-racial working class women in his home country.

In his earlier paintings, for example The English Ambassador (1987), The President and The First Lady (diptiques) (1989), the girth and fatness of the people do not only connote space, they also imply over-abundance and ostentatious-ness. Paintings of corpulent, over-dressed Presidents and their wives are a reflection of the state and its leaders, who, in their pomp and pretentiousness, live in a wholly different economic reality from their fellow citizens.

As his work develops, the relationship between size and corruption, largesse and excess, becomes more muted. The selected works on display at the Singapore Art Museum are more focused on Botero’s relationship to European masters like Ingres, Titian and Van Gogh. Even when he is mimicking Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbinn in After Piero della Francesca (1998), or honing in on the infant from Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas and reproducing her in rotund form, in After Velasquez (2000), Botero simultaneously charts his own course even as he pays respects to a glorified tradition. For the visitors to the museum, this is a chance to see the masters up close, through the eyes of a more contemporary student of these art history giants.

What is sorely missing from Botero in Singapore is, most assuredly, his series of work in response to the violence in his hometown of Medellin. The city that most people associate with drug cartels, state corruption and poverty has, since 1999, become the subject of Botero’s paintings and sketches but none of these work are on display in Singapore. They give us a glimpse of a different kind of Botero, a different appreciation for space in a context that is not about pleasure and plenitude but pain and death.

Botero in Singapore has been lauded as “the most comprehensive survey exhibition in Asia” of the artist’s work but without this recent series on Medellin, we are left with an impression of an artist who lives in a state of nostalgia for his native Colombia, during a time when beautiful large women languished in their own amplitude, amidst a verdant, rustic landscape of serenity.

Perhaps that is the exhibition’s intention—to cocoon us from the world’s depressing realities with art that reminds us how pleasure and the imaginative spirit need never decay.

This review appears in Off The Edge, January 2005 issue.

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