Will the artist win out over the gimmickry?

OPULENCE is a virtue in Fernando Botero's art, as well as its most famous characteristic. Everything he paints or sculptures, from cats, vegetables, and trees to children, generals, and mountain landscapes, is bigger than life and radiates extraordinary well-being. This emphasis on rotundity extends even to the smallest details of his compositions. It manifests itself in the way he draws leaves, nostrils, the claws of cats, fingers, and tufts of grass. He has gone so far in some of his recent paintings as to make his figures seem more like balloons ready to float up into the sky than like people or animals solidly set on earth. And some of his latest works in bronze and epoxy are so dramatically rounded that one wonders at times if they will explode.

Botero's view is witty and ironic. In his world, anything can -- and often does -- happen, from apples becoming as big as houses to families holding gargantuan picnics to which even wild animals are invited. Nothing is too ordinary or exotic for his pencil or brush. Some of his most successful pictures, in fact, have been of simple still lifes and individual animals or birds, while some have portrayed imps and demons doing their best to thwart mankind's better endeavors.

Botero's paintings brought him international fame at a very early age, an accomplishment made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had not affiliated himself with any of modernism's post-World War II movements. Even more unusual, he did it as a South American at a time very few artists from that portion of the world achieved more than local or regional fame.

Art interested him even as a child in Medell'in, a city high in the Colombian Andes where he was born in 1932. By the time he was 16 and well known locally as an illustrator for a literary magazine, he had been drawing for 10 years. This passion for art led to an early interest in modernism, clashes with his teachers, and successful one-man shows in Bogot'a in 1951 and '52.

With the money received from the sale of his painting, Botero departed for Europe. He arrived in Barcelona in the fall of 1952, then moved to Madrid, where he enrolled in an art school. The summer of 1953 saw him in Paris, deeply involved with the old masters in the Louvre. His next move was to Florence, where he studied the art of fresco and the works of Giotto and Piero della Francesca and experimented for two years with both traditional and modern styles and techniques.

He returned to Colombia in 1953 with a group of canvases that were not, however, as well received as he had expected. Disappointed but not discouraged, Botero then traveled to Mexico, where he met Rufino Tamayo and Jos'e Luis Cuevas and gradually evolved the formal approach that would soon become his trademark. His first North American exhibition was held in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and by 1958 he was well on his way to far-reaching acclaim.

Among his earliest works to receive serious international attention were a number of large canvases that paid tongue-in-cheek tribute to certain favored old masters. Thus, his 1959 ``Homage to Mantegna'' translated that artist's elegant Renaissance figures into rather roly-poly individuals whose forms forecast the opulence of his later work. And ``Mona Lisa, Age Twelve,'' ``Madame C'ezanne in the Garden,'' ``Mrs. Rubens,'' ``The Atelier of Vermeer,'' and several extravagant studies ``after'' Vel'azquez, Van Eyck, Ingres, and Caravaggio reflected his delight in transforming those painters' styles and subjects into images that could have been conceived and executed only by him.

By the mid-'60s Botero was ready to branch out, and he did so in a series of huge canvases that not only solidified his fast-growing reputation but created a new set of characters for him as well. These depicted church and political leaders; strange-looking felines, birds, and dogs; oddly outfitted children; nudes in bathtubs; society ladies with their stuffed-shirt husbands; pompous generals; and numerous priests and nuns. In all of them, Botero gave free rein to his predilection for plumpness, producing in the process some of the most outrageously idiosyncratic and provocative paintings of the 1965-75 period.

Things began to change after that, however. The character and solidity that had previously typified his work gave way to a straining for effect that caused some of his pictures to appear vacuous and bloated. What had been biting or witty before, and had represented a great deal of careful observation and thought, became gimmicky, occasionally resembling oversize greeting card illustrations more than it did art.

This emphasis on inflated forms and appealing subjects found a new and popular outlet in the sculpture he began producing in 1976. In these studies, plumpness became almost an end in itself, and Botero's tendency toward the coyly grotesque appeared to have found its ultimate realization.

There is still hope, however. A few very recent works indicate that he may be about to reverse the direction his art has taken over the past decade and may once again produce the extreme but oddly true-to-life kinds of images that brought him fame originally. It is always difficult to predict what an artist will do, but perhaps Botero's artistic integrity will win out over his desire to be cute.

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