By: Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman, Julieta Duque, Museo de Antioquia
My first contact with artist Fernando Botero was through the cover of a book in the library of the house where I grew up. I can still remember that image: an impressive bronze torso with a small human head on top. Busto, or Bust in English, the original name of the piece, was, in a way, part of my childhood.
Fernando was a mere teenager when he had his first exhibition. The work that set him off on his endless path was inspired by a mandolin, which led him to study and fall in love with the proportions that characterize his world-famous works.
In an unexpected twist of fate, as I was walking through Buenos Aires one day, I came face-to-face with the torso from the library in my house, this time in person. It was bigger than I’d ever imagined and even more memorable than it was on the cover of the book where I first saw it. This was but the first of the artist’s many sculptures to cross my path.
After traveling the world and achieving global fame, Fernando Botero, who divides his time between Europe and North America, decided to contribute to his hometown of Medellín’s efforts to invest in culture and education.
The Museum of Antioquia, inaugurated in 1882, has undergone a series of renovations and relocations over the years in an ongoing attempt to support education in the city and preserve its culture and history. In the 1970s, during one of the Museum’s efforts to expand its collection, a relationship began with the artist and he donated the painting El exvoto and made a pledge to provide future aid. In 1984, the artist donated another 18 sculptures and in the mid-90s, he worked with museum management and the Fundación Ferrocarril de Antioquia to restore several galleries and the facade of the Palacio Municipal. In 1999, Botero traveled to Medellín to supervise adjustments to the Museum’s new headquarters and await the arrival of the works he planned to donate to his hometown.
His contributions included the monumental Plaza Botero project, a 75,000 square-foot outdoor park with a permanent, open-air collection of 23 of Botero’s sculptures, which is free to the public. And now, standing among these 23 colossal figures, I am once again in the presence of Botero and reminded of my childhood. I am an ant scurrying between bronze faces, bodies, and curves that make me believe that the stories in books can come true for those who dare to dream in abstract dimensions.
The journey leading from my parents’ library to the present was neither easy nor short, but the path winding between the sculptures in front of me is unparalleled. The project required the purchase and demolition of several houses in front of the Museum, as well as the design and construction of the square, where the main attraction, clearly, is the works displayed in it, created by the country’s best known sculptor and painter. A walk through the square is an encounter with a mixture of accents, languages, and cameras, all captivated by the majesty of the sculptures, which seem to be resting under the Antioquian sun. It is unreal to be in the presence of these towering and, of course, voluminous mythical figures who have traveled the world and endowed it with a new sense of beauty.
Fernando Botero has created a style so marked and so unique that it has its own name.“Boterismo” is the technique used to fatten each element represented in the painting, be it a human figure, an object, or even a small detail in the background. The Museum’s various collections reflect the artist’s passions, Antioquian culture, and memory, including a reflection on Colombia’s armed conflict, “narco-culture,” and even a lawsuit against human rights violations around the world.
The square, also populated by street vendors selling all kinds of unofficial souvenirs, is the perfect entryway into the museum. This open space in the midst of so many buildings also makes it possible to admire the surrounding architecture and the hustle and bustle of life in this city.
The Museum’s permanent indoor collection includes paintings, sketches, and sculptures as well as an interactive room dedicated to Pedrito Botero, Fernando’s deceased son, which allows little ones to get closer to the artist’s creations and see his story from another perspective.
Standing before the artist’s violent images, which attempt to narrate Colombia’s eternal conflict, I remember the first time I saw these paintings. They were shown to me by someone who is no longer on this plane, someone whose soul shone when he spoke to me about art. Only months after he introduced me to the work, he became part of these images in the worst way, falling victim to the fratricidal war. My reaction was to avoid the artist for several years. Today, as I find myself once again facing Botero’s raw stories, I observe his lines and understand that memory must be present, that the artist is not punishing me with his work; he is expressing a demand, because he can’t forget, and he asks us to not repeat the things expressed in his paintings. I breathe in and accept the images, the memory. And walk on.
Pedro (1974). Fernando Botero. Óleo sobre tela (Oil on canvas). Colección Museo de Antioquia.
Aside from focusing on the city’s greatest artistic export, the Museum includes more than 5,000 works that explore the emergence, journey, and evolution of Antioquia and Colombia’s artistic history.
It is a living collection, expanded daily, with historical and contemporary works from Colombia and abroad and all kinds of cultural activities that draw more and more of the city’s inhabitants, encouraging them to participate in the arts from every possible angle.
Another of the Museum’s permanent galleries is dedicated to Luis Caballero, an artist from Bogotá whose exhibitions gained global recognition following his triumph at the first Coltejer Biennial in 1968. His famous nudes shook the world with bold stories told with unique strokes.
At just 25 years of age, Caballero began his race to the top with the mega-work Políptico: Cámara de amor (Chamber of Love), which was exhibited at the Coltejer Biennial. The work’s unusual size forced spectators to view it actively. The yellow and blue panels had to be taken in by moving past them, watching the figures slowly appear. The cube, exhibited at the Museum in a three-dimensional display, was originally designed to enfold the viewer, but its current form in no way minimizes the impact of standing in front of or below the work, traversing it and being absorbed by its shadows and colors, which seem to move with the viewer. Inside the work, I am once again like an ant scurrying along and recognizing a path; the painted figures surround and observe me from a distance.
The Museum’s El Barro Tiene Voz (Clay Has a Voice) Gallery features ceramic works that tell the story of Colombia’s original people.
Of special interest is the timeline running from ancestral times to the present and the inclusion of both popular ceramic traditions and pieces by contemporary artists working with clay.
The Historias Para Repensar (Stories for Rethinking) Gallery focuses on late 19th-century art and offers a journey in time through the region’s artistic traditions, to better understand the idiosyncrasies of the city and the department. The 20th-21st Century Gallery, as the name indicates, exhibits modern and abstract works of art that combine new forms of expression.Finally, on display in the International Gallery are original works by international artists, part of Maestro Botero’s donation, which highlight moments in the history of world art for everyone’s enjoyment.
This visit has been my latest and most profound encounter with Fernando, and, yes, we’re now on a first-name basis. I’ve been a friend of this master my whole life and hope to continue my close encounters with him. He’ll never know me personally, but these opportunities to experience his work will continue to fuel that picture of the giant torso from my childhood, which was actually a tiny human with fat dreams, dreams that have come true in my lifetime.