R.I.P Fernando Botero (1932 – 2023). One of the great artists of the 20th century, after 91 years, has cemented his legacy into the memory of his home city – Medellín. He was, after all, the greatest and most renowned artist the city has ever produced.
Join us in this article as we share the history and pertinent details of Botero’s life; from his humble beginnings where he decided to pursue a risky career in art, to the height of his influence where he changed the world with his unique Boterismo sculptures. In this article, we celebrate the legacy of Botero – a true source of pride for Medellín and its people. At the end of the article, we impart the significance of the Museo de Antioquia for its intimate connection with Botero – a place worth visiting if in the Antioquian capital.
The Early Life of Fernando Botero
The legend Fernando Botero, a true Paisa, was born on April 19, 1932, in the city of none other than Medellín.
He was the second of three children born to David Botero, a travelling salesman, and Flora Angulo, a seamstress. Botero’s passion and talent for art made itself apparent even in the earliest chapters of his life.
Botero’s family environment played a significant role in nurturing his artistic inclinations. His father, David, was a well-read and highly cultured man. He possessed an extensive collection of literature spanning topics from the French Revolution to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Fernando, at a young age, enjoyed flicking through these books. This exposure to literature likely fueled Botero’s curiosity and ignited his creative spirit.
At the tender age of four, Botero lost his father to a heart attack. This loss had a profound impact on his life and art, influencing his themes of melancholy and solitude later in his career. Despite the hardships his family faced, Botero’s mother, Flora, recognized her son’s artistic potential and, although careful not to get in the way it, knew that it would be hard to scratch a living from it, especially in a place as economically challenged as Colombia.
Botero’s uncle assumed the role that his father left when he passed. The relationship between Fernando and his uncle was both strong and crucial.
At the time of his infancy, Medellín was a place mostly bereft of art galleries or cultural art. Botero instead sought artistic inspiration from the city’s old, colonial churches. His en plein air sketches of these Spanish buildings would be some of the earliest art created by Botero. He and his friends would also depict scenes from the city’s debaucherous red-light district.
In an interview, Botero admits that his desire to be a painter was almost like an epiphany and that it stemmed from his passion for bulls. At the age of 12, his uncle sent him to a school for matadors/bullfighters. Rather than desiring to hurt bulls though, he began to paint them.
At just 16, Botero made his mark by joining a collective art exhibition alongside fellow Colombian talents, while his illustrations found a home in the pages of El Colombiano, a prominent Medellín newspaper. This would be the first time his work was ever publically displayed.
Using the money, Botero covered his tuition expenses at the Liceo de Marinilla de Antioquia high school. During this time, he penned an article delving into the works of Pablo Picasso for a local newspaper. In the article, he advanced the notion that ‘the destruction of forms in Cubism mirrored the erosion of individualism in contemporary society.’
This publication, albeit an innocent intellectual exploration, was perceived as a Marxist declaration, resulting in his expulsion from school. Recalling the incident, Botero recounted, ‘The dean said, ‘We cannot accept rotten apples in the school. That will damage the other students”.
However, this setback did little to deter his aspirations. At just nineteen years of age, Botero was unwavering in his determination to become a painter. Upon hearing her son’s resolute declaration, his mother issued a cautionary warning: “You’ll die of hunger“.
Botero's Early Training and Development as an Artist
From 1949 to 1950, Botero found himself working in Medellin as a set designer. After this, he moved to the capital, Bogota, where he realized his first solo exhibition at the Galería Leo Matiz in 1951. This may have been a seminal period for his signature “Boterismo” style as it was here that he began exploring figure proportions and sizes. However, the artworks he showcased displayed such diversity, incorporating influences from Gauguin to Diego Rivera, that observers believed it to be a group exhibition.
Botero may have not honed in on his characteristic voluptuous style, but each piece of his work at the exhibition still found a buyer. Young Botero, then just 20 years old, achieved second place at Bogotá’s Salón Nacional de Artistas.
Shortly thereafter, using the proceeds from his gallery sales, he embarked on a journey to Europe by sea, eventually arriving in Barcelona in 1952. From there he would swiftly find his way to Madrid. As was the case in Colombia, Botero’s early career as an artist would take him to the capital, but this time, in a European country where he could further invest in his education at the Academia de San Fernando.
Before Botero returned to Colombia in 1955, he had gone from Paris to Florence and Italy. He invested this time to study big-hitters of the Early Renaissance such as Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. In this time he married and had 2 c
Botero’s return to Colombia saw him marry Gloria Zea before they both moved to Mexico City in 1956.
In 1957, Botero and his spouse embarked on a journey to Washington D.C. for his inaugural U.S. exhibition. Just like in his first exhibition in Bogotá, collectors eagerly acquired every piece of his work on display. By 1958, Botero returned to Colombia, assuming the role of a painting professor at the Bogotá Academy of Art. In 1960, following the couple’s expansion to a family of five with the addition of their children Fernando, Lina, and Juan Carlos, Botero and his wife parted ways. He subsequently relocated to New York City.
During his time in New York, Botero created one of his earliest critiques of the Colombian government titled “La Familia Presidencial” (The Presidential Family) in 1967. This artwork depicted the Colombian president alongside his wife, mother-in-law, and daughter, flanked by a military general and a bishop. The exaggerated proportions of the figures, characterized by flat, vibrant colours and bold outlines reminiscent of Latin-American folk art, conveyed a powerful message.
Although Botero did not provide a direct commentary on the painting, it was widely interpreted as a subtle satire addressing Colombian state power and corruption.
Entering his mature period as an artist, Botero’s focus gradually shifted towards sculpture. In 1972, he established a studio in Paris, which proved to be an ideal medium for extending the stylistic and thematic elements present in his paintings. Despite personal challenges, including a divorce in 1975 and a tragic car accident in 1979 resulting in the loss of his son Pedro and injuries to Botero himself, his dedication to art remained unwavering.
In 1983, Botero set up a dedicated sculpture studio in Pietrasanta, Italy, known for its marble quarries and foundries. This move allowed him to further explore the realm of sculpture.
Fernando Botero's Ordeal and Commitment to Medellin
Transitioning from the late 1980s to the 1990s, Botero increasingly devoted himself to sculpture, showcasing his monumental bronze depictions of both animals and humans in celebrated outdoor exhibitions worldwide. Notably, he crafted multiple “Great Cat” sculptures, gracing cities like Barcelona, New York and Cali. These works underscored his profound fascination with the feline form.
In 1994, Botero experienced a harrowing incident when he became the target of a failed kidnapping attempt in Bogotá. The following year, in Medellín, a terrorist group unleashed a devastating explosion beneath his sculpture “Pájaro” (Bird), a piece he had generously donated to the city, along with 23 other sculptures in a nearby park (now known as Plaza Botero). This tragic bombing occurred during a music festival and claimed thirty lives and injured two hundred people.
The leftist guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia) claimed responsibility, citing revenge against Botero’s son, Fernando Botero Zea, who served as Colombia’s defence minister then and had declined to engage in political negotiations with the group.
Responding to this act of terror with remarkable resilience, Botero created a new statue from the remains of “Pájaro,” naming it “La Paloma de la Paz” (The Dove of Peace), and graciously gifted it back to the city. Deeply moved by the tragedy, Botero made an additional heartfelt gesture in 2000, donating an identical, undamaged bronze bird, which now stands alongside the restored bombed sculpture. The names of the bombing victims are etched on its base, forever memorializing their memory.
During the 1990s, Botero’s artistic focus began to shift towards pressing social and political issues, culminating in series of works that explicitly addressed the rampant drug violence in Colombia. These series delved into distressing subjects such as kidnappings, massacres, and car bombings.
Colombia was not only in the midst of a bloody internal conflict which began in 1964 but was also at the height of its narco-era. Chief among all ‘capos’ was none other than Pablo Escobar. Throughout the late 80s/early 90s he was at the peak of his wicked powers – inflicting senseless violence on his city of Medellin in a bid to force the government into submission.
The Legacy of Fernando Botero in Medellín Transcends his Own Life
Fernando Botero left an indelible mark and legacy on Medellin, Colombia, and the art world at large through his unique and internationally acclaimed “Boterismo” style. His voluptuous sculptures can be found all over the world, including Dubai, Germany and the US. Nowhere, however are they in such Botero’s importance to Medellin and beyond can be understood through several key aspects of his artistic and cultural contributions:
1. Distinctive Artistic Style: Botero’s “Boterismo” style, characterized by voluptuous and exaggerated forms, became iconic and instantly recognizable. His ability to create art that was both aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking contributed to his lasting impact.
2. International Recognition: Botero’s work gained international acclaim, making him a prominent figure in the global art scene. His art served as a cultural bridge, introducing audiences worldwide to Colombian art and culture.
3. Social Critique: Botero’s art went beyond the superficial perception of “fat” figures. Instead, he used his distinctive style to embody a sensual and humorous voluminosity that served as a form of social critique. Through his monumental figures, he explored complex human truths, including themes such as torture, greed, pleasure, despair, absurdity, and more.
4. Representation of Colombian Identity: Botero proudly referred to himself as the “most Colombian artist living.” He fearlessly depicted both the positive and negative aspects of Colombian history and culture in his art. Despite personal safety threats, he used his work to shed light on both the good and bad nature of his homeland.
5. Development of Neo-Figuration: Alongside fellow Colombian artists Débora Arango and Pedro Alcántara, Botero played a pivotal role in developing Neo-Figuration in Colombia. This artistic movement combined pleasing figurative art with the courage to satirize and challenge political corruption and oppression. It provided a platform for artists to engage with and critique societal issues.
6. Cultural Ambassador: Botero’s work effectively served as a cultural ambassador for Colombia, introducing the world to the country’s rich artistic heritage. His art helped break down stereotypes and offered a deeper understanding of Colombian culture.
The Passing of Fernando Botero
At the impressive age of 91, Fernando Botero passed away due to complications of pneumonia at his home in Monaco (15 September 2023). His legacy, however, is very much still alive. The work of this Antioquian legend will surely transcend his death and continue to enrich the city for many years to come.
At the plaza bearing his name (Plaza Botero), where he once gifted 23 of his finest sculptures – was the scene in which Medellín and Antioquia bid farewell to their most illustrious artist of all time: Master Fernando Botero.
His coffin arrived a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, September 26th, at his home in the Antioquia capital, the Museum of Antioquia. The home of his great display of generosity, preserving 189 works he donated to his land over the course of 50 years.
A guard of honour, consisting of soldiers and police officers, received him at the entrance of his home. There, with the Colombian flag atop the coffin and a crucifix at the head, he witnessed the tribute paid by an entire society.
A video documenting the arrival of Botero’s first sculpture in Medellín —paradoxically on September 15, 1986, at the Banco de la República building— brought tears to the eyes of children and grandchildren on a cloudy morning when the sun’s rays broke through to illuminate the square.
One by one, people took to the podium, speaking from the heart about what Botero left behind for Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, and society. Neither Governor Aníbal Gaviria nor Mayor Daniel Quintero took the stage.
Instead, heartfelt words were given by friends, family, colleagues, academics, businessmen, the workers of his square, and individuals inspired by his work.
Visiting the Museo de Antioquia
There we have it. The news of Botero’s passing may not have come as a complete shock, but the loss of such an influential artist will no doubt make the world feel more empty than it was before.
However, his life should and will be celebrated. Although not here with us in person, his art and sculptures will live on. Much like the city’s immaculate metro system, the pride of Paisas will ensure that his work is well looked after and cherished. Judging by the recent decision just this year to protect his famous square (Plaza Botero), we can be confident that Botero’s legacy within the city is in good hands.
As always, if you have any questions, get in touch