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