BOTERO Fernando


In a sense, all great artists are well-informed art historians. Throughout the history of Western painting, borrowings and appropriations have been both subtle and blatant on the part of major and minor artists from the Renaissance and beyond. Although the notion of giving new life to older compositions has been codified only in the twentieth century (the greatest proponent of this trend being Picasso), earlier masters discreetly built their oeuvres upon a repertory of visual images and themes developed by past painters. Fernando Botero has brought the art of appropriation to new heights in the later years of this century.

Picasso systematically mined the fields of art historical invention, passing from El Greco - through Velázquez and Poussin to Lucas Cranach and, finally, Courbet and Manet. Botero casts his net even wider. We have already commented above on the significance of his expressionist recastings, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. At virtually the same time, Botero's glance fell upon more modern artists such as Cézanne and, in 1963, he painted a large Madame Cézanne in the Gorden.This work, in which the gestural brush appears to be more gentle and controlled than formerly, is unusual in its insistence upon a dark palette.The predominant color here is dark brown, punctuated only by the orange hair and pink scarf of Madame Cézanne. Even the flowers themselves, elements which usually offer the artist the opportunity to present virtual riots of color, are monochrome and subdued.

Mantegna had captured Botero's attention while he was still a student in Italy. The early versions, such as the 1958 Homage to Mantegna I, of the Camera degli Sposi's group portraits of the Gonzaga family (with pride of place on the lower level going to the cat and the female dwarf), offer us an analogous deadpan revisiting of the somber family and their entourage; they reappeared in Botero's oeuvre on other occasions. Italian artists of the Renaissance and Baroque traditions have continued to nurture Botero's fantasy.

Botero's imagination was not captured by the Italian artists alone. He also penetrated the more tempered realms of the Northern Renaissance, Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding in the National Gallery, London, is a virtually "anti-Botero'' image given its diminutive size. However, in a work of 1978, Botero gave the participants in this marriage-consecrating picture a monumental presence that memorializes them in a twentieth-century context. In Peter Paul Rubens, Botero found a perfect match for his ambitions of immensity. Rubens - artist of vast historical compositions, mythological scenes of Hollywood-spectacle proportions, ambitious hunting parties, and religious opuses peopled by muscular saints and voluptuous virgins - must certainly have been a challenge for Botero, whose own visions are of considerable volume and girth. Curiously, it was not on any of the challenging scenographic spectacles that Botero fixed his attention, but rather on the gracious and voluptuous women that Rubens painted. The various versions of Mrs. Rubens of the 1960s confront us with a charming woman in a fancy feathered hat, staring out at her public with a demurely sensuous gaze.

Of all the Renaissance and Baroque artists who have sparked Botero's interest, none has been as much of a magnet for his creativity as Diego Velázquez.The greatest master of the Spanish Golden Age,Velázquez has traditionally served as both inspiration and challenge for artists from Spain and Latin America (and elsewhere, of course), Botero came into first-hand contact with Velázquez's work in Madrid, in 1952 (when he studied at the Royal Academy of San Fernando).The Prado was naturally the place to which he gravitated, and Velázquez and Goya soon became his most important teachers during that period. As has occurred in the case of many artists in the past, Velázquez's greatest achievement, the 1656 Las Meninas, was the image that proved to be the biggest challenge to Botero.This painting is many things, from group portrait, to the artist's self portrait, to the investigation of the potential of reflection (with the use of mirrors) and spacial recession. The Impressionists admired the Spanish artist's expertise at suggesting light effects, as well as the brilliance of his painting of both cloth and jewels, especially in the figure of the little princess Margarita, who is the focal point of the composition. Curiously, Botero did not pick up the challenge of the composition as a whole. Instead, he extracted figures from it, especially that of the Infanta, and the 1977 "After Velázquez offers his discreet homage to this great master painting. In the 1985 Self Portrait as Velázquez, Botero dresses himself as the Spanish artist, playing, in a post-modern sense, with realities and personalities as they are transformed by an exchange of dress.

Botero also connected with the humanity and compassion of Velázquez's paintings, and deeply admired the latter's series of portraits of the dwarfs employed by the court of King Philip IV as both jesters and care-takers for the royal children.The tradition of portraying court dwarfs is an old one in European art, but Velázquez was the first to paint them with a sense of humanity and insight into their individuality. It was this characteristic that drove Botero to concentrate on these figures in his own series of paintings, which includes the 1984 Mari Bárbola d'après Velázquez.

Eighteenth-century artists such as Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Hyacinthe Rigaud were also examined on several occasions by Botero, who even inserted his own self portrait into a 1973 version of Rigaud's Louis XIV. Of the nineteenth-century traditions, Botero has looked with intense scrutiny at Ingres. His interest in the master of the expressive line and the champion of a decorous neo-classical reserve is not surprising, In Botero's 1979 Mademoiselle Rivière (No. 2) 1805, after Ingres, the sensuality of the original model is enhanced in the Colombian artist's exalted conception of this elegant woman. Reminiscences (if not direct appropriations) of Edouard Manet's ground-breaking composition Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe) are also found in several paintings depicting picnics by Botero.

Perhaps Botero's most interesting compositions in the realm of ''art and art history" represent the interiors of art galleries. Pictures such as The Botero Exhibition of 1975 may be read on many levels. On one hand, these gallery scenes (in which every work on display is by Botero himself) gently satirize the act of commercial display of works of art. In their bringing together representations of paintings (as well as the individuals observing them) which, in real life, are found in disparate collections. He is reminding us of the Renaissance tradition of ''picture gallery paintings'' as exemplified in the eighteenth century by Giovanni Paolo Pannini. At the same time, in painting his own gallery pictures, Botero is inserting himself within the culture of the art world and art history, declaring his position as an artist whose work, ''en masse'', is worthy of contemplation, admiration, and acquisition.