They call him Maestro. The Master. With a paintbrush as mighty as the sword. He wields it with the precision of a man who has dedicated his life to art. And from this has come his latest masterpiece, Bullfight: Paintings and Works on Paper (Glitterati Incorporated), which showcases more than 140 oil paintings and 35 drawings of the sport that made Botero realize his calling in life.
As Curtis Bell Pepper writes in the introduction to Bullfight, “Finally it was going to happen. A young Fernando Botero would face a young live bull for the first time. For months, as a torero de salon (student bullfighter) he had practiced making passes at bull’s horns coming at him on bicycle wheels/ Now it was real. Anything was possible. Ever since he was nine, when his uncle Joaquin began taking him to the corrida de toros (bullfights), he had dreamed of being a matador.
“But when he stepped into the ring with six other boys holding capes, the bull charged him alone. He stood his ground—a slim dark-haired youth, the ground trembling, the snorting rage of the bull’s lungs, the wide horns no longer on a bicycle. With a two-handed Veronica pass, with the bull looping upward, he did his work. Then the animal charged another nearby novice.”
Fernando Botero laughs at the memory, and tells Curtis Bell Pepper, “I realized in the ring that I was better at watercolor.
“I did some fancy moves of course but there was another dimension to the thing. I didn’t have the courage and the drive to do it. But the aficíon, the passion for bulls, has stayed with me all my life, and I have done many paintings and drawings on the subject. “
Those works are collected for the first time in Bullfight, a stunning companion volume to Glitterati’s companion volume, Circus, released in 2013. Both books, when taken together, reveal Botero’s love for the great performers of our day, the performers at the center of the arena who command our attention with feats of courage. Botero’s reverence for their acts can be seen in the pleasure his paintings bring to us.
To celebrate the publication of Bullfight: Paintings and Works on Paper, the Museum of Modern Art will host a book signing on Wednesday, October 29 at 7:00pm. To RSVP, please email email@example.com
Botero uses the canvas as a space of performance. He speaks with The Chic about a life in art, a life that has always been captivated by the dance of death that is known as the bullfight. He remembers, “I was fourteen years old. I started to draw in school, sitting at my desk. I was working in watercolors. It was inexpensive and beautiful. I did so many. Some we so big—two meters! People would ask me, ‘How do you go so big?’ (Smiles). I wouldn’t be able to do that today.
“When I began I was making copies of posters by Ruano Llopis. For me, it was Leonardo da Vinci. The way painters learned in the past is by copying. This is a very healthy thing for an artist. In my hometown some people kept the little watercolors I did so many years ago. I told them I wanted to see them. Years ago, a friend who I had known as a pupil came to see me with a drawing I had done and asked me to sign it. Some things survive…”
The first painting botero had sold was of a bullfight. In his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, there was a shop owned by a tailor named Rafael Arango. Arango sold tickets for the corrida. Botero asked if Arango would sell his watercolors and Arango agreed. They hung five watercolors. One was sold for two pesos. As Botero recalls, “I got the money and ran back home to show my brother, but I lost the money on the way home.”
But Botero continued on. He began selling works to the newspaper in Medellín to finance his education and graduate from high school. In 1952, he moved to Bogotá and soon thereafter had two solo exhibitions at the Leo Matiz Gallery. Botero remembers, “I ha my first one-man show at the age of 19. That is unusual. I put a bullfight in the exhibition. I needed to have one. The painting was still wet when it was hung. It did damage to some of the suits in the crowd.” He pauses, then adds, “I have been an artist for a very long time.”
On the subject of bullfights, Botero observes, “There are some subjects that are a gift to the artist. Painting itself comes from the gift of color. So many activities have no color. There is not much color in life.” He gestures around the room, which is a symphony of greys and neutrals. An impressive display of pre-Columbian sculpture decorates the shelves along the wall, and Botero’s own sculptures happily dance in the midst of their terracotta-colored brethren. The colors are of earth and nature, but they are indeed, subtle harmonies of a neutral palette that do not distract from the form itself. The very three dimensionality of the sculptures becomes the dominant aspect of the work. This all the more underscores Maestro’s observation that the painting is a gift of color, as revealed by his exquisite sensitivities.
Botero observes, “My greatest admiration is for the fifteenth century Italian painter. There is a tremendous power in the forms and strong use of color. These paintings have color in every corner and every color has the same level of importance. Everything has the same intensity, like a Matisse. The greatest of the time is Piero della Francesca. He is the greatest colorist and the roundness and the fullness of the forms. It is fantastic! Color and form coexist. Very few people are able to do this.”
Of the bullfight, Botero marvels, “The matador wears red, yellow, pink. The sand is orange. The whole thing is color. You don’t have to make an effort to invent color. It has always been popular with artists because of that. Goya. Renoir. Manet. Picasso. Many do these paintings. The stronger the color, the more harmonious.
“It is very dramatic. Sometimes the matador dies. Sometimes they get gored very badly. So many sports come with danger. But this is an art. It is a ballet. It is do the death. The battle has to have a personal style, the way a writer or a painter does. You don’t have to see the face to know who it is. They have a personality. They give themselves totally to what they are doing. It is to say, ‘I forgot about myself.’ And that is when they get gored.
“The style of the matador is like a painting. There is a classical style and a baroque style. Some matadors are very cold, very straight. They fight in a cold way. The baroque style moves a lot, does this thing with the cape, does two or three classical passes, the baroque does many things. The classical is very spare. They have a special style that you can recognize in a still photograph. It is an art. These people believe this is the most beautiful profession in the world.
“There are people that speak only of bullfighting. They do not talk of anything else. I worked with an opera company on costumes in Monte Carlo for two or three months and they are this same way. They talk about opera until three in the morning. With bullfighting, it is the same. For them, nothing else exists. And they are right.”