Washington — In an age when thin is in, Fernando Botero's paintings are about as fashionable as Lindy's cheesecake. The pudgy people who populate his paintings make his work instantly recognizable. Perhaps not since Rubens has an artist so lovingly depicted quantities of that "too, too solid flesh" of which Hamlet once complained.
One would naturally tend to assume that Botero admires rotundity, but his work is not that simple, as the retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum shows. The exhibition of 66 paintings, drawings, and sculptures by the 47- year-old Colombian artist is Botero's first major retrospective in this country. In addition to honoring him it also proves that a contemporary artist who invents a unique, idiosyncratic style and avoids allegiance to a school or movement can still achieve an international reputation.
Ironically, it is precisely because Botero paints as no one else does that he feels compelled to repaint the works of other artists; that is, to repaint them in his own image. Botero explained during a conversation of the opening of his show that when he was growing up in Colombia he had no opportunity to see the paintings of the European masters, and when he finally traveled to Europe and saw them in the flesh, so to speak, "I was disappointed. For one thing I thought they would be much bigger. I wanted to paint them as my ideal painting. I wanted to correct the story of art."
All artists see the world differently, but Botero's vision is so penetrating that it not only reshapes life but the art of others. Several of the paintings in this show are copies of paintings by Old Masters such as Mantegna, Velazquez, Masaccio, Caravaggio, and Rubens. Two of his most amusing and disturbing "corrections" are "Mona Lisa, Age Twelve," in which the famous smile appears on the leviathan head of a child, and a kind of squashing of Jan van Eyck's famous "The Arnolfini Marriage," in which the two elongated, Gothic figures are reduced to dwarflife proportions.
The question, of course, is why Botero has this obsession with fat people. It is a question that he does not satisfactorily answer, and his own slender frame does not suggest a personal reason. Moreover, his sources are too eclectic to form a pattern. They include pre-Columbian art, Spanish colonial painting, Goya, Velazquez, the Mexican muralists, Picasso, the surrealists Magritte and de Chirico, and even the abstract expressionists.
Oddly, apples provide the best clue. Botero paints them frequently in his still lifes and as ornaments in his portraits. The past master of apple painting was Cezanne, with his geometric vocabulary of the sphere, the cylinder, and the cone. Cezanne led Botero to worship the "two absolute forms of plasticity: the circle and the right angle." In contrast with the cubists, for example, who were the aficionados of the angle, Botero is the celebrant of the circle.
From a formal point of view all his figures are variations on the sphere, and behind his mimickry of paintings by other artists is a serious study of the relationship between form and content -- how distortion of a familiar subject affects the viewer's response to it. Thus although Botero is a figurative painter, he is also an abstractionist whos coin is the sphere. As he stated on another occasion, "In art, as long as you have ideas and think, you are bound to deform nature. Art is deformation. There are no works of art that are fully 'realistic.'"
But the rotundity of his figures serves another function as well. Botero is a keen satirist, and his targets are the classic ones of religion, politics, and sexual morality. In paintings such as "The Presidential Family" or "Official Portrait of the Military Junta," the bloated figures connote effeteness and pomposity, and such details as flies, a serpent, or a smoking volcano thicken the atmosphere of decadence.
Another clever device that Botero employs in his satirical paintings is a distortion of the scale as well as the shape of his figures, so that the less important people in a group portrait, often the women, are miniaturized, whereas the most powerful men are inflated like ballons about to burst. These incongruities also add to the surrealist effect, but sometimes their intent is merely compositional, as in the case of "Self-Portrait With Mme. Pomadour," to which he added his own tiny image as an afterthought. Botero likes to surprise himself as well as his audience, and he believes that "a painting is finished when a small miracle happens."
Botero's satire is less bitter than droll, and it would be misleading always to equate obesity with caricature. His figures possess in fact an endearing childlike, even doll- like, quality -- Botero compares them to marionettes -- and despite their fleshiness they seem more mechanical then sensuous.Their blank expressions reinforce this effect. Invoking the impassivity of the Egyptians, Botero commented: "I don't like expressions. I don't want to analyze people but paint them like objects. As Cezanne used to say to his subjects, "Please sit there and think you're an apple.'"
In recent years Botero has experimented with sculpture, and eight pieces are included in this show. His sculpted figures are more idealized, in a classical Greek sense, than his painted ones, and a little too familiar. The danger for an artist like Botero is that originality can become as much of nemesis as the lack of it when he repeats himself too often. Botero has made a point with his circle, and the question now is whether he has trapped himself within it.
The exhibition will continue at the Hirshhorn through Feb. 10, the appear at the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi from March 27 through May 10.