"Paraja Ballando" by Botero

Fernando Botero is a famed Columbian artist whose distinctive mark is pounds upon pounds of saggy, surplus human flesh. Every person, place and thing in his artistic vision is swollen, looking uncomfortably about to either deliver or burst.

Tabby cats are chubby, glowering generals are about to burst their buttons, picnicking families appear greatly overfed. Some of Botero’s best loved works feature Tango dancers and ballerinas, athletes who are impossibly heavy and yet miraculously balanced on a toe or two.

No one born of Botero’s brush or sculptural studio is immune from his extra, in-depth avoirdupois, not even Jesus himself.

Jesus had never been a central fixture in the exhibits of the über-successful Columbian artist until a 2011 show at New York’s Marlborough Gallery. “Via Crucis,” or “The Way of the Cross,” reenacts gospel accounts of Jesus’ scourging, mocking and crucifixion, but it’s the shape of Christ’s body that draws much of the attention in these works.

One crucifixion scene in the series is almost moving. Jesus’ expression is tender, but the Medieval body, painted as a sturdy wooden doll and flicked with a few drops of anatomically impossible blood, isn’t believable. I’ve seen terrifically truncated, even minimalist expressions of the Passion that still worked in a way Botero’s doesn’t.

Perhaps it’s because the artist doesn’t believe and lets that come across. Botero’s daughter Lina speaking to Alexandra Reyes explained why he bothered to place Jesus in heavyweight hall in the first place: “My father was not at all a religious person. He is interested in the subject matter because he finds in it an enormous plasticity (the color in the priests’ robes, etc.) The religious theme has always been important … and he thinks it is very important to anchor your subject matter in art history.”

"Via Crucis" by Botero

So Botero’s incredibly fleshy Christs aren’t creations of piety or satire, but they exist to anchor his place in “art history.” Jesus has suffered much worse at the hands of artists, so it’s hardly worth futzing over.

Another piece is just awful, and not in the inspirational sense of the word – a Christ’s head that looks closer to a corn-colored Beluga whale than a human. Mark Scroggins likened the population of the “Via Crucis” to “crucified smurfs.” This Man/God is less believable and far less attractive than his customary bloated citizens.

Viewing the bearded grotesque is like reading a novel where the reader loses all empathy for the hero. Lack of realism isn’t the problem. Suspending disbelief is impossible, because his Christ (or Mary) has no connection at its core to anything real or powerful. Such is the fate of pretentious art, even if it strains to appear primitive and unfeigned.

An essay by Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz for the exhibit quoted Francis Bacon (the English poet, not the artist) as some sort of disclaimer I suppose, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

Some artists make that work – but not in this case, sorry.

Jesus appearance in art is always a lightning rod of contention, drawing clashing beliefs about his humanity, iconography and rules about imagery and idolatry into a deep divide. Enter Botero’s version of the Savior with a decidedly Dionysian rotundity and the reception is predictable.

"Head of Christ" by Botero

Still I had to ask myself, “Why do I find this Jesus so unappealing – is it only obesity?”

Isaiah had prophesied Christ would have “no form nor comeliness … there is no beauty that we should desire him” about 2,800 years ago.

Technical aspects of his work sport problems beyond the social and spiritual issue of an inflated Jesus, though. Botero’s shapeless sea of soft humanity loses all the charm and aesthetical powers of the human body. Muscles and basic anatomy disappear or show up where they shouldn’t. If he were to stick with open kitsch, cartooning or even pure primitive art, it could work, but Fernando Botero takes himself very seriously with comparisons to Renaissance artists of “quattrocento and quintecento Italy” such as Uccello, Velázquez, Holbein, Vermeer and Durer. Pride goeth before a bad review.

Critics of the “Via Crucis” exhibit were mixed, which was better than years past when they just panned most of Botero’s work. Extreme fame has a way of softening critical perception, as Botero’s art has remained solidly and defiantly unchanged in style and substance for decades.

Lina Botero finds pride in her father’s obstinacy. Although the critics were ferocious in earlier decades she recalls, “He never belonged to a movement or fashion and always worked by himself, mostly against the current.”

Here at least is something most Americans could admire.

Back to the fat issue though: Isn’t obesity considered symbolic of greed, gluttony, sloth and a generally lack of discipline, particularly in the U.S.? Fat is bemoaned and battled in the media far more than outright sins like drunken driving. Perhaps the uncomfortable feeling many have with Botero’s obese population comes from more than aesthetics. I can’t decide if it’s as bad as it looks.

Centuries of painted apostles, saints and biblical characters are almost always unearthly thin, even emaciated, as it they couldn’t wait to crawl out of their skins. Herod may be fat, but the holy ones are thin. It’s a rule.

Little of Botero’s work appeals to me, which doesn’t much matter, as he’s made many millions and is considered the “maestro” of the art scene in Columbia. Those who think differently there are invited to shut up as a matter of national pride and morale.

The artist denies he has ever deliberately “painted a fat woman.” Daughter Lina, an excellent spokesperson, claims the beauty in Botero’s painting lies in the “sensuality of volume.” Truly volume is emphasized in virtually all objects in his work, even fruit and flowers appear overstuffed, but it’s impossible for viewers to avoid noting his figures are dimensionally gifted.

Fernando Botero generously donated his entire “Via Crucis” series to the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín, an undoubtedly generous act considering the collection is worth more than 100 million dollars. He has also donated works of other artists to Columbian museums and even the government because of a painful awareness of their lack there. When the painter/sculptor was young and trying to teach himself how to paint, there wasn’t a single museum in Columbia with works from foreign artists.

As bad as I may find Botero’s work, he has legions of admirers. In South Korea a record breaking exhibition drew close to 450,000 people. He commands millions per piece in auctions and sales and is ranked fifth most successful living artist in the world. Botero attributes his appeal to art “being direct, something the masses should be able to enjoy [not] needing intermediaries or explanations.”

How to attribute this success to poor art? Perhaps it’s sheer volume and endless confidence.

The maestro buoyantly announces, “If Michelangelo could do the crucifixion, so could I.”

Botero claims to have produced over 3,000 oil paintings and 400 sculptures during the past 60 years, and at 81 continues to work long, hard days sculpting and painting. People may be slowly conditioned to accept art fed them over 50 years.

Recently Colombia’s president and minister of culture conferred national tributes via titles, public recognition and exhibitions on this man. Botero must truly believe all the press and hype, judging by his ungracious and peevish behavior toward fellow artists in 2009.

The search was on for the winner of what should have been the “Fernando Botero Prize,” a prestigious award for young artists based in Columbia. After months of selections, the “artist” personally interfered, claiming they had given out the prizes poorly and adding, “I don’t know why they chose such lamentable works.”

He should understand lamentable. Understandably everyone involved was terribly disappointed and embarrassed by Botero’s hissy fit and canceled the entire thing, costing at least one young artist a $50,000 prize, honors and publicity.

Botero did make some interesting comments regarding his “Via Crucis” and the importance of religious art in history.

“Take Michelangelo for example – what would he have painted had he not had religion?” he asks. By contrast he claims that “not one important painting exists of a hunting scene,” which may not be the case, but it stands true to the spirit of Western art.

Thanks to these sources: kulturindustrie.blogspot.com; Art Daily.com; thecitypaperbogota.com; outofordermag.com; and The Guardian newspaper online.

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