Sculpture of a large bald head from the rear, with a bald man standing next to it
Art,  Colombia,  Photographing Public Art

The unique vision of Fernando Botero

An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.

Fernando Botero, Colombian artist

You can’t really miss the unique style of Colombia’s most famous artist. Whether on canvas or in sculpture, his figures are exaggeratedly rotund. The innate humour of these people, and animals, is often offset by sharp political commentary or by pensive contemplation of his own life and family. Indeed the theme of family is central to much of his work.

Some find these figures disconcerting or ugly, but I found the sculptures in particular curiously appealing. While his work is exhibited all over the world, there are two places in Colombia where it can be found in some quantity: Bogota and his home city of Medellín.

The Botero Museum, Bogota

We visited this museum on our first afternoon in Colombia. It says much for the power of Botero’s work that I was able to absorb and enjoy it even after an overnight transatlantic flight and only a few hours’ sleep!

The museum displays works by Botero alongside his own personal art collection. He donated the latter to the nation with three stipulations. That entry must remain free for all, that he would dictate the hanging in all the galleries, and that after his death his estate would retain control. There are works here by many of the world’s most famous artists: Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Henry Moore, Max Ernst etc. etc. But I was most interested in Botero’s own works and in what our guide Hayley had to say about them and about him. She talked about the impact of the death of his father when he was only four. The even greater impact of losing his own son, aged five, in a horrific car crash. And the themes that run through the works of motherhood, temptation and recent Colombian history.

Painting based on the Mona Lisa showing her much larger and with a hint of a smile
Mona Lisa
Painting of a large nude woman from behind, being painted by a smaller artist at an easel
The Artist

Perhaps his most famous painting on the left, and one of the more humorous ones on the right; the artist in the latter is a self-portrait

Painting of group of men with guns resting in a wood

A more sombre painting, depicting a guerrilla group led by Eliseo Velásquez

Face on view of carved female figure lying on her front
Carved stone panel with rear view of nude couple

Two of the sculptures

Plaza Botero, Medellín

To his home city Botero has been even more generous, donating over a hundred pieces to the main museum, the Museo de Antioquia and a further 23 sculptures to be displayed in an outdoor setting, with people able (indeed encouraged) to touch as well as see them. These are dotted around the large square in front of the museum which consequently has been named after him.

We didn’t visit the museum but spent some time exploring the sculptures in the plaza. Some were the same as those we’d seen in the Bogota museum, but I liked them much more here in the open air with people able to touch and interact with them. The bronze takes on a lovely patina when polished by the hands of so many. And the photo opportunities were excellent!

And elsewhere in Medellín

In another square, the Parque San Antonio, two Botero sculptures sit side by side. In 1995 one of Botero’s pieces, El Pajaro (The Bird), was stuffed with 22 pounds of dynamite and detonated during an outdoor concert in the plaza. The resulting blast killed 30 people and injured more than 200. FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or People’s Army) claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack.

In 2000, Botero donated an identical statue but insisted that the bombed-out remains of the original statue remain. Now the statues are collectively known as the Birds of Peace, one a symbol of Medellín’s violent past and the other a symbol of its bright future. The names of the victims of the bombing are inscribed on the base of the damaged bird.

Large sculpture of a bird, exaggerated in size, with a hole blown through it
Large sculpture of a bird, exaggerated in size

As with the city’s gradually transforming comunas, here is another reminder that Medellín (and Colombia as a whole) is today a very different place.

I’m sharing all of these for Natalie’s Photographing Public Art Challenge. As entry to the Botero Museum in Bogota is free, I think that can qualify as ‘public art’ alongside all the open-air pieces in Medellín! Not everyone will like Botero’s work, I suspect; it may be an acquired taste. If so, it’s a taste I definitely acquired, especially for the sculptures.

I visited Colombia in February 2023


  • Annie Berger

    Ever since we saw so many of Botero’s works in Columbia, it was a lark also readily spotting more in Seattle, WA, and other spots on our travels. Thanks, Sarah, for raising the awareness of Columbia’s premiere artist.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I don’t recall spotting any in Seattle but maybe they didn’t register with me the way they would now, after this immersion in his work. I must keep my eyes open in future when we travel!

  • leightontravels

    A very interesting read, Sarah. It seems that tragedy is inextricably linked with his work, both personal and national. The remains of the exploded sculpture are haunting. We recently saw a number of his sculptures in Yerevan where they also attracted a lot of attention and curiosity. I love the photos you took of other people posing with the sculptures.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Leighton. Yes, tragedy has definitely shaped his work, and his life. His works are all over the world but I didn’t realise there were some in Yerevan. I enjoyed watching people interact with the sculptures and trying to capture their reactions 🙂

  • ThingsHelenLoves

    I don’t know anything about art beyond knowing if I like something or not, but I do like the sculptures and paintings both. The remains of the bombed out sculpture is quite something, unnerving and touching at the same time. I don’t know much about the history of Columbia, something to put on the list.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Helen 🙂 I agree about the bomb-damaged bird, it is unnerving. Colombia’s recent history is equally unnerving but the country is trying to put past events behind it and move forwards more peacefully.

  • rkrontheroad

    Celebrating the works of an artist from that place makes all the difference. And how wonderful that people are encouraged to touch his sculptures! How sad for his losses. And there is a touch of humor in these creations.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ruth 🙂 Yes, despite the tragedies in his life he clearly retains a sense of humour as well as a deep love of his country (even if he does live much of the year in Europe these days!)

  • wetanddustyroads

    I know hopelessly too little about art to be able to give an opinion. But to me there is definitely humour in his paintings and sculptures … which I suppose makes them enjoyable to look at.

  • Alison

    These look like so much fun Sarah, my favourite type of art! How great that you are encouraged to touch them, so often sculptures have do not touch signs all over them.
    I did like the Mona Lisa.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Alison 🙂 You can’t touch the pieces in the museum but in donating the ones to the square Botero not only recognised that they would inevitably be touched but also actively wanted that to happen.

  • Rose

    The bird(s) are interesting in design and history. I’m always curious about what goes through an artist’s mind as they create their art – what is the significance to them? Art is often left up to the public to enjoy and interpret, yet I’d still love to know the story behind each piece.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I agree Rose, and that’s why I was glad to have our guide with us in the museum, although unfortunately I was a little weary from the flight and didn’t properly take in everything she told us. My main understanding is that he is driven firstly by the significant events in his life, especially the joint tragedies of losing his father when he was so young and his son as a small child. He grew up very close to his mother after his father died, so motherhood is a major theme in his work. And secondly, by his love for his country and distress at seeing it torn apart in the 90s and early 2000s.

  • Amy

    I like the first image, Sarah. Thank you for introducin Botero’s work! I’m not familiar with his work, it’s wonderful to learn from your post.

  • Anna

    Can’t say this is my type of art, but the mona lisa was pretty cool! I showed my daughter and we had a laugh together! She thinks its better than the original! Lol thanks Sarah x

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh dear, I wonder what Da Vinci would think?! Actually the Mona Lisa is my least favourite, although it made me smile, but that’s perhaps because you see cheap copies in every tacky souvenir shop in the country!

  • Natalie

    Sarah, Thank you for your PPAC contribution. I love that Botero donates sculptures for the open air plaza. Art is more fun and relatable when people of all ages can interact with them. I like some of his sculptures. He has a distinct style.

  • Marie

    How wonderful to see so much of his work. His figures certainly exude quirkiness and humour but there’s more to it than that of course – he has addressed many issues of the day. Sounds as though he has an amazing personal collection…… imagine amassing all that. He’s still working I think…..

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, still working age 92 I understand – impressive! And I agree, it’s the underlying themes that make these pieces interesting rather than simply having a sense of humour.

  • restlessjo

    If you’ve never seen any of it before his work comes as a surprise but I do find it grows on you. Just having created a style all his own is remarkable enough. A few pieces I really like.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’d seen the Mona Lisa but I didn’t have the right context to understand what he was about (and that’s still not one I really like), and one or two sculptures, which I had liked in a casual ‘oh that’s nice’ sort of way, rather than properly appreciating 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know exactly what you mean. That was my first thought on seeing the paintings, and like you I’m not a fan of her work, but I found Botero’s humour much more subtle and less caricature-like, and the political messages make many of them more poignant.

  • Sandy

    Your first shot is classic!
    I appreciate the scuptors style more now than I would have before. There’s a similar artist in Beijing who is quite popular but I really dislike. His used of stylilzed rotundness had a farcical harshness. This artist though is more human and humorous.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I was really lucky with that first shot – I just turned around and that bald guy was standing in the perfect spot, probably totally unaware of how much he looked like the sculpture!


    Acquired taste or not, I find them both pleasing on the eye and instantly amusing. Even better when there is a serious commentary hidden behind the humour. I absolutely love the self-portrait, and the way it suggests that all of his subjects really were that shape!

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