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Unless you were driving while distracted, you couldn't have missed the 6,500 pounds of voluptuosity in front of the Toledo Museum of Art. Two giant female nudes are ensconced there, and they're likely to trump Calder's red Stegosaurus as a prop in photos following high school graduation ceremonies in the Peristyle.
Lying on her belly, her buxom bosom raised, Smoking Woman stretches out her bronzed, ballooned womanhood nearly 12 feet. Her slimmer sister, Europa, rides bareback and sidesaddle on a thick-hooved bull, looking as if she's the conquerer, not the abductee. And at the Grove Place entrance, an 8 1/2-foot-tall bronze hand with five disproportionate fingers (Hand, 1985) beckons.
They trumpet a new exhibit of work by one of the most popular living artists, a flamboyant, 79-year-old Colombian who loves color, satire, and monumental proportion. The Baroque World of Fernando Botero with 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures snugged into three skylighted rooms at the west end of the museum continues through June 12. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for people 65 and older, and $5 for ages 6 through 22.
Don't think of Botero's rounded figures as fat: to him they're poetic elaboration, pneumatic, abundance.
"The purpose of my style is to exalt the volumes, not only because that enlarges the area in which I can apply more color, but also because it conveys the sensuality, the exuberance, the profusion of the form I am searching for," he has said.
Successful for more than 50 years, Botero paints, sculpts, and sketches the comedy, beauty, and violence of life. He's often satiric and mocking but without cruelty.
"The problem is to determine the source of the pleasure when one looks at a picture. For me, the pleasure comes from the exaltation of life, which expresses the sensuality of forms. For this reason, my formal problem is to create sensuality through forms."
He riffs on European masters, creating his own bizarre Mona Lisas, sunflowers off of van Gogh's 1889 painting, and portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino after the 1472 diptych by Francesca.
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The first image visitors see is a striking blue canvas of a blond girl who'd make a dandy Mother Ginger. After Velazquez (2005, 6 1/2 by 5 1/2 feet) depicts the Spanish princess in formal dress painted in 1656 by Velazquez. Not only has Botero inflated the Infanta Margarita, he's lowered the neckline on her elaborate dress and simplified its pattern, given her a rose to hold, and altered the background.
"If I paint a painting that has the same subject as a famous [historical] painter has used, I am part of the same tradition, I am saying that I am equal to the artist who first painted that painting."
His many portraits include cardinals and Christs, brothel women and poor young widows, Latin musicians and couples at a street dance. Faces bear an odd neutrality with brown eyes, little pursed lips, and double chins, similar regardless of the subject's age, gender, or situation.
And there are slices of life: A prostitute plunges head first off a balcony, people walk a street in a South American village, a woman screams out an upper window as her earthquake-shaken town jumbles around her. On a picnic table laden with vittles, a man snoozes, a woman holds a cigarette and a drink, and in the far distance, a volcano spews black smoke.
"It's as if you've walked in in the middle of a story," says Amy Gilman, curator of modern and contemporary art and newly named associate director of the museum.
Between six-foot-tall portraits of Adam and Eve in the garden is an even larger painting of a blue vase brimming with a cauliflower-like bouquet of creamy flowers. Look closely to see subtle colors in the tiny blooms.
In another still life, a bunch of dark green bananas rests on a wooden table in front of leafy banana trees. And there's the eight-foot Pear, its gentle curves elaborated by light. It's nearly perfect save for a nibble at the top and where it widens, a couple of wormholes.
Asked when an artist has created a distinct style of his or her own, Botero said to apply the "orange test:" "...when the spectator isn't merely witness to a fruit, but to a style ... Whenever people stand in front of my paintings or in front of my sculptures, they not only see a pear or an apple, for example, but they immediately recognize the work as a Botero."
Botero was born in Medellin in 1932. His father, a traveling peddler, died when he was 4 and wealthy relatives sent the three Botero children to the best schools. An uncle took him to bullfights and he so loved them he enrolled in toreador school at 12. He fought mock bulls with gusto but dropped out the day he was supposed to face a real bull.
"My vocation as a painter was as a result of my failure as a toreador," he said in the biographical 2001 film, Botero: The Rebel.
He was expelled at 17 from his Jesuit-run high school for publishing an article he called, "Pablo Picasso and Nonconformity in Art." Two years later, he had a solo exhibit in Bogota: everything sold so he moved to a seaside village where he stayed in a thatched hut and painted. Back in Bogota, he entered an art contest, won $7,000, and bought a ticket on a ship to Europe.
By 1952 he was in Madrid, living across from the Museo del Prado. He went there every day, copying paintings and developing a passion for Velasquez and Goya. He visited Paris and went to Italy, traveling Tuscany on motorbike to see frescoes and paintings by Francesca and the Renaissance masters.
In 1956 he and his young wife moved to Mexico City. One day sketching a still life with a mandolin, he observed something that would come to define his style. He described the sensation as "going through a door and entering another room." He reduced the size of the mandolin's sound hole to a tiny circle, and the change made the mandolin seem huge in contrast. (This exhibit includes a 1998 painting of a mandolin.)
He decided to enlarge everything, be it animal, musical, or vegetable, as an expression of sumptuousness and sensuality. The following year, he had a show in Washington and by 1961, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art had purchased his Mona Lisa, Age 12.
At a time when the stars of abstract and pop artists were rising, critics weren't sure how to read Botero's figurative work. Some said he was simply a commercial success, that he was out of touch with contemporary art, or devoid of reflection. But people loved him.
"A lot of critics hate my painting. I don't care. It makes me laugh. I'm successful."
In 1973, be began making sculptures in Paris, where he lives today. In bronze and marble, they've been installed on the Champs Elysees in Paris, on Park Avenue in New York, Chicago, Madrid, in front of Palazzo Pitti in Florence, along the Grand Canal in Venice, and on Monroe Street in Toledo. He sometimes buys back his own works and gives them to Colombia.
Toledo is the 13th North American venue in four years to display the show, organized by and leased from Art Services International.
Why "baroque" in the exhibit's title? The word derives from Spanish and Portuguese words to describe pearls that had irregular shapes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, "baroque" was applied to European painting, sculpture, and architecture that did not adhere to the previous Renaissance and Mannerist styles; it was visceral, its gestures were broad and immediate. Calling an artist baroque could refer to his or her willingness to break the classical rules.
"I don't have to account to reality for anything," said Botero. "I feel I'm unique."
Contact Tahree Lane at 419-724-6075 or email@example.com.