The old masters had a saying, which went something like this: “Choose one master and follow him, your individual style will develop in time, just by working and making progress.” Nowadays style has to be easily recognizable with an easy readability at its core so that this adagio almost seems a mysterious saying in a language that is yet to be deciphered. If you do not have a distinct style, you have no voice of your own.
Truth be told, a master is recognized through his personal style. But who can discern the individual masters of old times by their works and their brushstroke, unless easily distinguishable figures or subjects are included, for which a master is known, like Jheronimus Bosch, for instance? Even contemporary artists think about themselves as brands and, as it seems, branding is more or less a thing of all eras. I personally feel that, in some works, even Bosch went overboard to be recognizable as Bosch. In general, it is by a style’s likelihood that we can trace a troublesome difference between an evolved style and an appropriated one. Especially the last hundred years or so show a shift towards an unlikely and unwanted appropriation of style.
Within the work of 14th and 15th century masters, we notice differences in size of the figures depicted in direct contrast to their perspectival position and their appropriate realist and relative size. Some figures are shown bigger as a way to underscore their importance. Their overblown size shows their importance within the narrative of the depicted subject. As an example, we can think of a wealthy donor of an altarpiece in relation to donors or officials of less importance.
This is one thing that got Fernando Botero, born in Medellín, Colombia in 1932, thinking about a play with volumes and ratio. You can find a direct reference to this type of medieval use of size at work in his The Vatican Bathroom from 2006. The pope is massive and a small cardinal holds his towel, waiting for him to get out of the bath. So here size does matter, and you’d wonder how the small towel would suffice to dry the pope, and why is he still wearing his robe? The work calls to mind Millais’ Ophelia and The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. You could think of any work with a dressed person immersed in water or in a bathtub and as such it is also reminiscent of his 1975 Homage to Bonnard.
But again, Botero shows a distinctive notion of psychology, through the averted gaze of the pope and the running water. The tub is about to overflow and the water will surely wash away the small cardinal. What does the water stand for? Does it refer to the purification of sins? Or would the implication concern the spilling over of sins? It remains a mystery, like the strong mysteries hidden in his brightly-colored flower arrangements.
As Botero says himself: “A successful painting is one that definitely retains its mystery, that cannot be taken in from all angles.”
As he pours the ratios of his rather well-rounded geometry over the pictures by old Italian masters, Botero thinks: “I’m my own master, master of my style and through it, I can show you that I am a distinctive creator.” As his proportions of volumetric deformation overcome any subject matter and, as such, become the object of the depiction, he does seem to override their artistic and historical implications.
In search of a way to make his mark, he doesn’t comment on the position of the respective works from the Renaissance, within the context of the most apparent notions about the individual which arose during this period. Nor does he reflect upon the more negative connotations of the portraits of the rich in this context. Here, you could, of course, stress the vanity of their wish to be portrayed and to be remembered.
Velazquez, on the other hand, stressed the humanity and individuality of the dwarfs he painted and, in doing so, raised the awareness of individuality as such, turning painting into a philosophic notion. In a way, one could say that Velazquez became a reviewer of contemporary notions of the personal in a broader context, like a psychologist dealing with intrinsic power relations, long before Manet presented his Olympia.
Manet made his work part of the decline of the arts by turning it into a forum of display for the notions of contemporary society or the contemporary debate of propriety, which prompted Baudelaire to name Manet as the forerunner of the decline of the arts (“You are only the first in the decrepitude of your art.'')
We should keep in mind, however, that at least as early as the Limbourg brothers, striking details of contemporary life were depicted within images of a symbolic nature. But this incorporated upfront realism shouldn’t be mistaken for the elaborate insult of the bourgeoisie of Manet, nor for the intellectual scrutiny with which Velazquez depicted the personality of the dwarfs, in a way like he himself servants at the Spanish court.
In contrast to both, Botero puts his own style forward, without contributing to the discourse around Velazquez, (though) just(ly) glorifying l’art pour l’art and stressing his personal pleasure in the act of painting . Yet, he shows a political concern in depicting government officials and in making a gift of pictures of the torture of political prisoners to the National Museum of Colombia in Bogotá.
So we now are sure of how recognizable his style is. Botero knows how to apply his style to paintings of past masters and to topics of contemporary society. This makes him rather mysterious to me.
As a painter, I’ve been troubled by the question of style for many years. When I entered art school at 16, I was told I already had too much of an individual style, and I couldn’t make much of that comment at the time. I do recall, however, how conscious I was of making pictorial decisions. I never just put the brush down and start, but always had a plan, which I worked out with charcoal. But this was a plan so close to me that I could not say how I could separate myself and the topic from the style.
So how did Botero’s style come about? Was there an intrinsic connection to a topic and to his artistic practice that brought about those awkward ratios? Was it just a quest to become recognizable, a tour de force of an ambitious young man from a provincial, somewhat backward town? Did he find the grotesque in Mayan sculpture? Did he find his roots in the proportions of a reclining Mayan nude, like Henry Moore before him? The watercolor “woman Crying” from 1949 seems to imply at least some influence of Aztec culture.
Was it his study of El Greco at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, which gave him the idea of such a strong abbreviation of the real? Like Parmigianino, El Greco made use of an elongated human form, expressing elegance and the sensitivity of highly intellectual and emotional Renaissance man. Does Botero tell us that, as human beings, we are closer to a well-rounded old lady or man, young woman or boy or horse as he stretches the amassing of volume to everything he depicts? Does this make Botero the most materialistic painter of all times? I don’t think so; I feel that this title still has to be given to the young Velazquez.
The story goes that, around 1956, he discovered how gigantic the mandolin seemed, after he painted a very small opening at its center. He developed his creative pathway from this point on, making his discovery the constructive basis of his entire oeuvre, underscoring the accidental by means of serious thought and painterly elaboration. He built a personal style through the accumulation of structured deformation; a wondrous autonomy of vision. His vision is repetitive like a mantra, soothing his fears of the outer world, quenching his desire for a childlike inner world constituted through his painterly technique beyond any kind of affirmation outside his painting.
Botero loves to draw. You can feel his love for composition in every work, which moves the works away from the trivial. Maybe it is by emphasizing the weighing of volume, by counterbalancing every little thing in the work by its exaggerated presence, that he stays in touch with the pictorial. He doesn’t lose himself in the topic, or the overtly visual, photographic aspects of his imagery. He keeps it close to himself. I feel he has found a sincere way to maintain himself well-grounded within the parameters of art.
He is much more of a draftsman than he is the painter. His paints remain thin. Yet, although the mixture of medium and pigment is sufficiently “fat” to cover the distances of his colored planes, his work doesn’t speak to me from the paint itself. The picture plane remains a colored field, of great merit, but not one that inspires beyond the color. Not one with phantasmagorical appearances, like we can find within the late Titian and Rembrandt.
He really works from the drawing; the drawing dictates his painterly adventures. But he is steady in finishing his works. Like a master baker taking the bread out of the oven at exactly the right time. We are grateful, as he hands us his finely-tuned bouquets of repetitive form and color clusters.
As he says: “To finish a painting is to stop thinking.”