“The problem is to determine the source of the pleasure when one looks at a picture,” Botero explains. “For me, the pleasure comes from the exaltation of life, which expresses the sensuality of forms.”1 Famed for the lushly proportioned, pillowy bodies of his now-eponymous nudes, Botero has for decades applied his facetious wit to subjects spanning Colombia’s military junta and its red-light district, Catholic clergymen and the bourgeoisie. Since his departure for Europe in 1952, he has drawn from myriad art-historical sources—Titian and Velázquez; Giotto and Masaccio; Rubens and Ingres—and embraced the classical sensuality of volume, space, and color in legions of stylized “Boteromorphs.” Enamored as a boy of the glamorous “Vargas girls” that he saw in Esquire magazine, Botero has long since cultivated an aesthetics of abundance in figures whose proportions defy fashionable conventions of beauty. Formidable and yet charmingly naïve, his characters play out scenes and drollery from everyday life, often set in the idealized world of Medellín, Botero’s birthplace.
“My first passion was the bulls,” he recalls. “One day, my uncle Joaquín enrolled me in a training school for bullfighters. Run by Aranguito, a banderillero, it operated in the Macarena bull ring in Medellín. I would go to the bull ring two or three times a week and hang out there. I got to be good at dodging imaginary horns and at toreo de salón, that is, cape and muleta work without a bull. I went to see the great matadors of the time—Manolete, Lorenzo Garza, Arruza, and the others. But the day they brought in a real, live bull for us to work with, my passion cooled.”2 Botero declined the precarious profession of the torero, but he nevertheless found in bullfighting a profound and enduring subject, its ritualized spectacle of life and death memorialized in a now iconic series of paintings and sculptures.
Although Botero drew scenes from the corrida as a boy, he returned to the bull ring in the 1980s in full cognizance of the art-historical canon into which he entered. “In 1983, after attending a bullfight in Medellín, I retraced my steps along the road on which I had started,” he explained. “I thought to myself: ‘This is a worthy subject with a long tradition—Goya, Manet, Picasso,’ and so I did my version of the bullfight.”3 Botero’s revival of the bullfight is steeped in this iconographic tradition, from its basis in Spanish patrimony and pageantry to its sobering meditations on the human condition. He drew parallels between the bull ring and the canvas, declaring, “A great matador such as Juan Belmonte defined the classical in bullfighting as ‘what cannot be done better’ and I think that this definition can be applied also in art.”4 In 1985, he exhibited his own corrida paintings, among them the present work, for the first time at Marlborough Gallery in New York.
The performative passions of bullfighting and flamenco are inseparable in Spanish culture, and Tablao flamenco takes its place within Botero’s tauromachian universe alongside dashing matadors and elegant majas. Here in a ruffled red dress, the bailaora raises her arms with dramatic flair, clicking castanets dangling from her thumbs. The sinuous shape of her body sweeps into an arabesque, balanced on a dainty green heeled shoe, as she moves to the rhythm of the music. Performing in the intimate space of a traditional tablao, she is encircled by a guitar player and two hand-clapping dancers, one seated and the other diminutive; a couple exits the club behind her, their limbs mirroring the curves of her torso. Tablao flamenco doubtless nods to John Singer Sargent’s monumental tribute to the dance, El Jaleo (1882; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), a scene of raw, frenetic energy and eros. Yet Botero’s tableau is comparatively, and characteristically composed; the figures revolve around the central bailaora in musical and chromatic harmony, accenting the rubescence of her costume with visual grace notes of yellow ocher and complementary green. Flamenco’s twirling, percussive movement suggestively simulates the bravura choreography of the bull ring, and Botero posits the dance as a florid sublimation of the bullfight’s mortal danger. “My great source of pleasure, almost as intense as painting, is to watch a bullfight every day—on video if need be,” Botero once reflected. “Bullfighting, in an increasingly grey world, is one of the few fields that still has colour.”5
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park