"If I paint a picture that has the same theme as that used by a famous painter," Botero has reckoned, "I am part of that same tradition." With the fine sensitivity to the past characteristic of an artist born in virtual isolation from history, Botero in one move both preemptively asserts his place in the history of art and demonstrates how that historical tradition continues its work through his practice. El rapto de Europa is a voluptuously modern riff on the ancient Greek myth played with a knowing nod to the artists of the Venetian Cinquecento, whose renderings of the mythic encounter preceded and in some ways stimulated his own.
According to Cretan legend, the king of the gods, Zeus, fell in love with Europa, daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre. Transforming himself into a gentle white bull, the god mixed in with her father's herds and came upon the girl and her attendants playing on the shore. Charmed by the docile bull, she caressed his flanks and strung garlands of flowers around his horns, finally climbing onto his back--an opportunity seized by the god, who at once made for the sea and swam, with Europa astride, to the island of Crete, where he revealed himself to the maiden, ravished her and made her queen. The conquest was a favorite theme of such painters as Titian and Veronese, who aestheticized the abduction with sensual texture and lustrous color. Botero, in a painting of the same subject from 1995 has similarly portrayed the captured maiden in a blissful state of rapture, succumbing not unwillingly to seductive dance of the bull, master of the bullring in which they play.
Botero elides the darker erotics of rape in the earlier painting, and this small bronze to an even greater degree pictures their tryst in a near--consensual light. Europa sits here, preening, astride the tamed bull, a woman in apparent control of the situation; her expression is one of empowered sexuality. The luminous curves of the sculpture, in which the shapes of their breasts and loins mirror each other, suggest an abundant sensuality. Lacking the romantic overtones of the Venetians, Botero's interpretation emphasizes the physicality of their encounter in the amplitude of the sculptural volumes; the lushness of their bodies is exalted in their smoothly rounded bodies.
In cycling back to this classical theme, Botero has radically updated it, discarding the narrative details of his predecessors and re-situating the myth in a more universal, and at the same time a more modern context. The bull and the maiden become archetypal figures, the story of seduction and conquest abstracted to their single, joined form. The universality of this myth, with its themes of conquering love and of the birth of a nation, is here given new life in an object that successfully re-engages an ancient tradition through the language of modern sculptural form.