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He regards himself as 'the most Colombian" of Colombia's artists, but Fernando Botero has spent most of his professional life in Europe and New York. And although he is forever associated with the elegantly corpulent if delicately featured figures that are immortalized in his canvases, his own physique appears fairly trim in photographs over the years. So what's with all those little fat folk anyway?

Botero says he has no idea, and that he just follows his intuition on such matters. But his fascination with all things baroque is widely known and perhaps a legacy of his youth in Medellin, Colombia, where the Spanish baroque cathedrals were the most aesthetically impressive features of a city famously more concerned with commerce than art or beauty. Botero has associated the baroque with the beautiful ever since.

In art and architecture, baroque designers stressed florid, fleshy grandiosity over the classical restraint of the Renaissance artists who preceded them. Grand, cornucopia-like settings with lots of flesh and operatic drama were characteristics of Italian-baroque aesthetics and, of course, big pink nudes are the eternal legacy of the Flemish, baroque-painter Peter Paul Rubens. Relating all that to Botero's provincial Colombian heritage is another matter, and I must confess that for the longest time I really thought his little fat folk were simply a successful gimmick " a brand not unlike George Rodrigue's Blue Dog. In fact they may be, but there is also more to it than that. It is to Botero's credit that he never stopped growing, and although now in his latter 70s, some of his best work appears to have been done over the past 20 years, if this NOMA retrospective is any guide. Although stylistically somewhat consistent, his has been a fairly gradual evolution.

Botero's 'fat" folk started showing up, albeit in a more primitive form, in the late 1950s in works like his circa-1959 painting, Girl Lost in a Garden. Here a little munchkin, as stiff and blocky as one of those ceramic German beer steins, is little more than a massive head with haunted eyes rising from a truncated torso in a forest of darkly hued sunflowers-du-mal. Other works from that period are as expressionistic as any of de Kooning's antsy elaborations of hyperkinetic angst, but everything changed by the mid-1960s as Botero's figures became as plumply rotund as overstuffed sausages.

A master of contradictions, Botero always gives his figures a certain delicacy of facial expression in spite of their girth, and their bodies possess the sleekly proportional sort of grace seen in well-fed seals or penguins; their limbs and torsos appear almost inflated, more airy than gross. In his Nuestra Senora de Colombia, a corpulent Madonna with a sweaty face, tiny nose and double chin cradles an obese infant in her flabby arm. The infant wears a pink shirt, purple shorts and green socks, and sports a stiff, golden halo like a beanie in a scene that conveys a more homely pathos than traditional religious paintings. The same might be said of his tubby Jesus in Crucifix, and any number of portly saints, whose physical opulence matches the florid décor of baroque churches.

His likenesses of famous artists, including his hero Picasso, appear similarly well fed, as do figures from news stories, for instance the victims of Colombia's political violence, or even the torture victims at Abu Ghraib. But it is his genre scenes based on memories of the 1940s-era Colombia of his childhood that are the most resonant. They are also the most evocative of the surreal lyricism of Latin American fiction, as we see in his 2001 opus The House of Marta Pintuco in which a tragicomic parlor of low rent carnal indulgence suggests an operatic take on the human condition in a place where vice and virtue mingle with haphazard sensuality and indolence.

Fernando Botero's The House of Marta Pintuco suggests a parlor of low-rent carnal indulgence in the 1940s-era Colombia of the artist's memory.
  • Fernando Botero's The House of Marta Pintuco suggests a parlor of low-rent carnal indulgence in the 1940s-era Colombia of the artist's memory.

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