“At the circus one finds colors, movements, poetry, expressions of the human spirit that one finds nowhere else,” Fernando Botero has waxed eloquently of his recent favored theme. (quoted in C. Bill Pepper, Circus: Paintings and Works on Paper by Fernando Botero, New York, Glitterati, 2013, n.p.) “There is no other human activity that presents the visual artist with the human body in poses like the circus. Just think of the contortionist, the tightrope walker.” (quoted in Beatriz Manz, “Circus! Fernando Botero,” Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies (Spring 2009): 28.)
Botero’s delight in depicting the motley performers of the circus is palpable in his series of more than 300 whimsical paintings and drawings that showcase the possibilities of the human body and spirit. The passion and spectacle of the circus arena as a colourful, animated and dramatic performance space relates to other themes seen in the artist’s work including his much revered musicians and dancers and even shares in common the elaborate clothing and a sense of the formality seen in the artist’s reinterpretations of historic themes, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Diego Velázquez Las Meninas.
Inspired by a chance encounter with a modest traveling circus in Mexico in 2006, the series also hints at the autobiographical, harkening back to Botero’s childhood in Medellín, Colombia. Botero has often recalled that some of his greatest pleasures as a child were trips to see the Atayde Hermanos, a humble traveling circus from Mexico. Happening upon a similar troupe decades later in Mexico, Botero has explained, proved especially intriguing “because it was a poor circus, like those that came to Medellín when I was a child—a group of poor people who did everything, from selling tickets and ice cream to confronting a toothless lion, walking the tight rope, swinging on the trapeze, juggling, etc.”(ibid.) There is thus a poignancy in Botero’s later playful circus paintings as they are imbued with an elder artist’s nostalgia for days long gone.
Not only deeply personal, the circus series also engages with European art historical precedents. As Botero has pointed out, “the circus had been a very attractive theme for many well-known and lesser-known artists, a subject dignified in the work of Renoir, Seurat, Lautrec, Picasso, Chagall, Léger, Calder and many others.” (ibid.) Well-versed in the canon of European art history, Botero no doubt sought to simultaneously associate himself with and depart from these earlier masters. There is a certain joie de vivre found in Botero’s circus works that is not present in those earlier European examples. While Toulouse-Lautrec’s or Picasso’s circus performers often appear as laborers, arduously undertaking their tasks, Botero’s equilibrists, lion tamers and jugglers are exuberant in their execution of peculiar and perilous stunts.
In Tightrope Walker, an unmistakably Boterian woman, audaciously rotund, seems to defy gravity as she balances effortlessly on a wire while dangling gold hoops from her limbs. Below her another circus performer looks on, his tiny stature provides a sense of scale, suggesting just how high up this young woman is. Stepping ever so lightly across her wire, she seems impervious to the dangers that could befall her. As in the best of Botero’s works, here the viewer embraces a suspension of disbelief that is not unlike that of the circus-goer. Under the Big Top, men and women walk on wires and shoot out of canons while elephants dance and tigers leap through rings of fire. The circus audience eagerly accepts this bizarre spectacle and is willingly transported into flights of fancy. Similarly, in Botero’s work the viewer is asked to eschew logic and to embrace an imaginative world in which improbably corpulent figures occupy spaces with impossibly skewed perspectives. Botero’s eccentric characters, always rendered in disproportionate sizes and ostentatious colors, thus seem right at home in the zany arena of the circus.
An ideal subject that allowed Botero to delve deep into the fantastic while simultaneously looking to his own past as well as art history’s, the circus stands out as a singular series in the artist’s long and prolific career, offering up an inimitable wellspring of creativity.