Botero, ‘smart, quirky and just outside the norm,’ won acclaim for being whimsical

Botero is probably the first answer most critics, collectors or curators will give when asked to name a contemporary Latin American artist. And if you question people from outside the art world, Botero will often be the first and the last name that comes to mind.

Aside from the branding advantage of calling himself by a snappy, one-word name, Botero has established his reputation along two paths. He gained the respect of the art intelligentsia for being smart, quirky and just outside the norm, and won the acclaim of the public for being whimsical and understandable.

Born in 1932 in Medellin, Colombia, as Fernando Botero Angulo, he has worked in landscapes and still-lifes, but his fame rests on paintings and sculpture of human figures with almost comically exaggerated, rounded features. Colombians have loved him for decades, at least since he won first prize at the Salon de Artistas Colmbiano in 1959, and find his work emblematic of their nation’s identity. Although he studied art in France during the early 1960s, he grew up with little or no exposure to the art found in museums or the various currents that animated Modernism, but was surrounded by the Baroque splendor of his country’s Roman Catholic heritage.

Perhaps the tendency of Baroque art toward abundance and heightened proportion helped form his signature style. But for his part, Botero claims not to have known or understood the sources of his art when he began painting, calling it entirely intuitive. Botero’s Baroque inspiration was recognized in the title of a major exhibition of his work, “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero,” which toured museums in North America from 2007 through 2008. The accompanying catalog, published by Yale University Press (2007), is the most extensive study of his life and work to date. Featuring 100 works from the artist’s private collection, the volume provides an informed review of his considerable body of work.

The market for Botero’s work includes oil paintings, works on paper, sculpture, ceramics, signed limited edition prints and reproductions. At auction in Europe as well as the U.S., numbers have been steady and strong. At an auction house in Munich (Dec. 6, 2008) a rather pensive profile portrait of a grand woman, Dame im Profil, executed in oil and dated 2004, sold for $356,524 (hammer). Three days earlier in Paris, Sotheby’s sold a whimsical study of a weighty woman at her bed, clad only in green slippers, Femme aux Escarpins Verts, also in oil and dated 2001, for $196,106 (hammer).

Five auctions in New York for similar works on canvas hit the million-dollar mark for two years standing, from November 2005 through November 2007. The Musicians (1979), a mural sized oil featuring a glum-faced group of musicians squeezed together in portrait stance, highlighted Christie’s May 2006 sale with a hammer price of $1.8 million. Of the 40 paintings auctioned during this time period in the U.S., 11 went unsold, one oil on board sold for $4,750 (hammer) and the remaining 22 lots sold between $40,000 and $800,000.

Botero’s palette varies, with a sizeable number of works in his oeuvre on paper. Charcoal, pencil, felt pen and watercolor are among the implements used in his sketch work. Mostly simple studies of faces and figures but an occasional full color painting will appear on paper. Consistent with his figures, the overall size of the paper support can be looming. A 62-inch by 72-inch drawing and watercolor on paper, a reclining nude titled Femme Lisant (1990), sold at auction in Paris in April 2009 for $176,175 (hammer). The range in auction prices for a Botero work on paper is generous, with a few selling around $1,000 and the bulk of work between $10,000 and $100,000.

The limited edition prints can be affordable for the collector on a tight budget. The pencil signed  editions are limited to 150 and 200 prints, keeping them more desirable because there are so few. Auction results vary from $100 to $7,000. A popular image, La Toilette (1983) with an edition of 200 and measuring only 13 inches by 11 inches, features the signature Botero whimsy – rotund woman, posed in a tiny, simple room,  brushing her lush coiffure. Six sold at auction within the last few years, fetching between $931 and $7,000 (hammer). 

Although landscapes, still-lifes and portraits comprise a substantial part of his repertoire, idealizing the voluptuous female form is his most beloved motivation. The key theme in Botero’s representation of the feminine body is profound proportion, exemplified and exaggerated as if to be placed high upon a pedestal. Arguably, his best work is achieved in his sculpture. He works in bronze, usually polished with a dark brown patina, resulting in bold larger-than-life figures that capture the imagination and exuberance of his vision of the female form. Reclining Venus (1989) is one of his best works. The monumental 60-inch by 90-inch by 46-inch bronze rendering of the goddess of love rests on her side, basking in the pure joy of sensuality. The November 2008 Latin American Sale at Christie’s (New York) realized $825,000 (hammer) for the sculpture.

Although at a casual glance Botero’s imagery can be defined as playful, a closer look reveals the artist’s placid commentary on colonialism, the politics of Latin America and relationships based on dominance. It was never more apparent than in the series of more than 80 paintings and drawings Botero unveiled in 2005, in response to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse in Iraq. In a gesture of protest, he created the graphic exposé of abuse of power for exhibition, not for sale. He called Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib, his Guernica, in reference to Picasso’s explosive accusation against the horror of modern warfare.