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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Thursday, 5 April 2007, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Botero's big, fat art
By Stephen Smith
Culture Correspondent, BBC Newsnight

Fernando Botero painting
Fernando Botero's paintings sell for up to $2 m each

Jeffrey Archer has a weakness for them. So does Sylvester Stallone.

And the late Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, used his ill-gotten gains to indulge his taste for them. Like other members of the world's conspicuously wealthy, these men have all been partial to a Botero.

You might hazard a guess that a Botero was a top-of-the-range 4x4, perhaps, or a gilt-wrapped confectionery served at diplomatic cocktail parties.

If so, you'd be thinking along the right lines. In fact, Boteros are works of art which are found in all the best homes, or at least the richest.

They are paintings and sculptures produced by their eponymous creator, Fernando Botero, a 75-year-old Colombian who has been hailed as "the Picasso of South America".

His canvases have been remarked on for the great girth of their female subjects. "Botero the painter of fat women" is the artist's own thumbnail sketch of himself. His corn-fed senoritas have helped to bring him heroic status in Latin America, as well as a healthy order-book.

Like his fellow countryman, the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Botero's vision is nostalgic and sensual, revisiting the rustic Colombia of his youth, her fly-blown cantinas, her tumultuous bordellos.

Elephantine and expensive

The artist has been feted with exhibitions all over the world. The President of France once ordered that monumental bronze Boteros should parade down the Champs-Elysees. But some critics claim that Botero's work, elephantine and above all expensive, amounts to "art for people who don't care about art".

Fernando Botero
Botero has been hailed as 'the Picasso of South America'
If there's a consolation in this stinging blow, it's that Botero is smarting all the way to the bank. His pieces sell for up to $2m each. So desireable are they that they've elevated the artist into the same super-rich bracket as his patrons.

One way and another, Botero has put a lot of mileage between himself and his humble origins in Medellin, Colombia's second city, where he was born in 1932, the son of a travelling salesman who visited his clients on a mule.

This accomplished and affable man was once camera-shy. Nonetheless, he agreed to let a BBC television crew into his studio, to be filmed painting for the first time in a career spanning fifty years. Together we embarked on a remarkable odyssey into Botero's life and work.

He has just produced his most talked-about pieces in years, a series of sketches and paintings provoked by the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They recently went on display at University of California, Berkeley near San Francisco.

Botero, who once trained as a bullfighter before developing other talents, demonstrated his cojones by inviting Americans to take a long hard look at these images of a national disgrace on their own homeground.

Abu Ghraib

At first sight, it's something of a jolt to see the brutal tableaux of Abu Ghraib supersized into Boteros, and the work has divided onlookers.

Fernando Botero
Novelist Lionel Shriver calls the Abu Ghraib canvases "a ghastly mistake"
Robert Hass, the American poet, takes Botero's point that "art is permanent accusation", continuing to bear witness to horror and injustice long after politicians and the media have fallen silent.

But the London-based novelist Lionel Shriver, though an admirer of Botero's work, calls the Abu Ghraib canvases "a ghastly mistake", outrage piled upon outrage.

At least no one can accuse them of lacking that vital critical ingredient, seriousness.

As we discovered, there's a cloud hanging over the head of this multi-millionaire, no bigger than a man's hand. On second thoughts, it's more substantial than that - the size of one of the ham-like mitts on a Botero nude, perhaps.

Self-imposed exile

We travelled with Botero to Colombia, where he requires armed protection because of the constant threat of kidnap. We went to the shuttered mansion outside Bogotá, the capital city, which Botero hasn't visited for eleven years, since gunmen tied-up his staff and shot his guard dogs in a botched attempt to abduct him.

The artist's family has been dogged by scandal. His son Fernando Junior, a photogenic politician who was once described as a 'Colombian Kennedy' and tipped as a future president of the country, has been ruined by his connections to drugs money.

Now living in self-imposed exile in Mexico, he has been sentenced in absentia to a lengthy jail term for illegal enrichment after being exposed as a middleman between the notorious Cali cartel and a former Colombian president, Ernesto Samper.

It is a shameful and inexplicable sorrow to his father, who can only repeat, as if to himself, "My son had everything."

Bullfights

Fernando Botero
Fernando Botero in his Paris studio
Botero was afraid of how Colombians would react to the controversy. He was invited to the bullfights in Medellín, his hometown.

At first, he was reluctant to be seen by the crowd. But then a bullfighter offered the artist his montera, his hat, a symbolic way of dedicating his fight, his kill, to Botero.

Like the rest of the spectators, we watched open-mouthed as the septuagenarian entered the ring to accept the montera and embrace the matador, heedless of the snorting bull a few short metres away.

The aficionados threw flowers to the matador but their cries of 'Maestro!' were for another Colombian hero, welcomed home after all.


Stephen Smith's Newsnight film on Fernado Botero is broadcast on Thursday 2130GMT/2230BST. His extended documentary 'The Big, Fat Art of Fernando Botero' is on BBC 4 on April 10, 2100BST.


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