Documentaries about artists normally present a rosy assessment of the subject and his or her place in culture, and Botero, a portrait of Colombian-born painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, certainly does this. Family, friends, and art-world folks say many kind words about the artist and his work, and a large part of the museum-going, art-admiring public might be inclined to agree.
According to one commentator, there are more books in print on Botero than on any other living artist. In 1992, he was the first artist invited to exhibit along the Champs-Elysees, all the more impressive for one not born in France. He presented more than 30 of his works in bronze — large, bulbous figures that are typical of his style.
But with so much attention paid to one artist, a good deal of scrutiny is sure to follow, and to the film’s credit, Rosalind Krauss, a Columbia University Arts and Archaeology faculty member, is allowed to sound off. She declares that the artist’s work is “terrible,” and mockingly compares the rotund figures dotting one of the world’s most famous boulevards to the Pillsbury Dough Boy. This may make some bristle, but hers is a voice the film needed to offset what would otherwise be a Botero love-in.
“(Columbia professor) Rosalind Krauss…declares that the artist’s work is ‘terrible,’ and mockingly compares the rotund figures…to the Pillsbury Dough Boy.”
Overall, his work is likable, easy to absorb and often quite humorous — a real crowd pleaser. But to these eyes, Botero’s art tends toward the skillfully executed but shallow-in-content end of the spectrum. Picasso-lite, you might say.
Not that he didn’t create some stunning works along the way, particularly in his earlier years. A good deal of those works are presented in the film, and many are terrific.
So how does Botero’s work measure up against the landscape of new art? At one point in the film, a speaker remarks that contemporary art is often fixated on shocking the public and has abandoned the ideals of creating objects of beauty and sensuality — a fair point, indeed. Another states that Botero has remained popular over the decades because he never belonged to a movement — he was his own movement. Another way of saying it might be that he refrained from challenging the avant-garde but found ways to fit his art within the artistic landscape of the times.
Aside from chronicling Botero’s growth as an artist, the core of Canadian filmmaker Don Millar’s take on Botero is pure Horatio Alger. It’s the story of an immigrant who pulls up stakes, spends time in Europe and eventually lands in New York with little money. He survives there against all odds, faces strong prejudices against figurative art, and achieves success beyond all expectations.
“Aside from the Botero’s growth as an artist, the core of Canadian filmmaker Don Millar’s take on Botero is pure Horatio Alger.”
When Botero arrived in Manhattan, the art world was emerging from a decades-long fascination with Abstract Expressionism and developing an affinity for Pop Art. Botero didn’t quite fit in, but his commitment to art and his strong convictions that his artistic principles were sound helped carry him through until he gained wider acceptance. It’s the classic story of one who toughs it out and is rewarded for hard work and unwaveringly confidence in oneself — an ever-popular theme that stokes the imagination of anyone aspiring to a lofty goal, which is probably why we love it.
Beyond the rags to riches story is the tragic tale of the death of one of Botero’s children. His young son was struck by a vehicle and died. The artist translated his grief into an expansive series of paintings depicting the youngster at play, a testament to Botero’s ability to translate grief into moving works of art that memorialize his deceased child. It’s one of the documentary’s most touching segments.
Botero’s art is not everyone’s cup of tea, and your appreciation of this film may depend on how you feel about his work. But that’s not necessarily the most critical litmus test. Despite my highly subjective take on Botero’s art, Botero, the film, is still an enjoyable experience that presents an appealing overview of the artist’s life and works and will no doubt please his many fans.
Botero (2019) Directed by Don Millar. Written by Don Millar, Hart Snider. Starring Fernando Botero.
8 out of 10 Portly Figures