"If I paint a painting that has the same subject as a famous painter has used," Botero reckoned in the 1970s, "I am part of the same tradition. I am saying that I am equal to the artist who first painted that painting."(1) With the fine sensitivity to the past characteristic of an artist born in virtual isolation from history, Botero staked his claim early on to a venerable art historical tradition with what he has called a "very strange mixture of admiration and criticism." "An artist is always a critic of earlier artists," he has explained, "You think you must, and can, improve on earlier ages," but at the same time "you must have this critical attitude to art of the past. . . . You can take the same subject and create a totally different painting. That's where real originality lies, in taking something that's already been done by someone and doing it differently."(2)
Botero does just that in Homenaje a Sánchez Cotán, a whimsically tongue-in-cheek reworking of the Spanish still-life tradition, played in this instance with a nod to Juan Sánchez Cotán, the extraordinary still-life painter of the Spanish Golden Age. Here, Botero directs his homage to Sánchez Cotán's masterpiece, Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, in which the fruits and vegetables are painted with hyper-realist precision along a pure hyperbolic curve and dramatically illuminated against a dark, window-like stage. The theatricality of Sánchez Cotán's intense naturalism takes a more lighthearted turn in Botero's rendition: a playfully inquisitive kitten perches on a prodigiously outsized cabbage, swiping her paw at the doubled hanging onion, every bit as large as she is, that takes the place of Sánchez Cotán's quince. At almost twice the size of Sánchez Cotán's painting, Botero's Homenaje presents these fanciful distortions of scale at truly monumental proportions, replacing the mathematical rigor of the earlier still life with the opulent volumes for which he is so famously well known. If for Sánchez Cotán art imitated nature, for Botero "art is deformation;" and in claiming that "there are no works of art that are truly realistic," he preemptively upended the realist tradition only to reinvent it on his own terms.(3)
Botero first encountered Spanish painting as a precocious twenty year-old at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where he lived for over a year in 1952-53. The singular and almost self-abnegating austerity of the Spanish still-life tradition, developed through the works of Sánchez Cotán, Zurbarán and Velásquez, would come to represent the conventions of realism against which Botero would eventually react. The innuendo and theatricality of the Homenaje a Sánchez Cotán owes a debt to the almost sacramental solemnity characteristic of its namesake, but its quirky uncanniness is all Botero's own. "Botero is able to create the most extraordinary effects in his still lifes," John Sillevia has remarked. "The mere size can be overwhelming, but there is more to it than volume. Botero is a master of foreboding in his still lifes. He inserts a sense of menace or uneasiness into an arrangement of fruits."(4) Homenaje a Sánchez Cotán is hardly menacing, but the eccentricity of this scene of monumentally sized vegetables and the miniature kitten that makes them her playthings precludes a simple narrative. There is a levity in the preciousness and impossibility of the scene, to be sure, yet a sense of mystery too: the barren vanilla background is a puzzlingly empty space, the rounded utensils and cutting board suggest a human presence--but in what world would these vegetables grow?
Homenaje a Sánchez Cotán offers plenty of food for thought-- lustrous, striated leaves of cabbage, onions dangling like a light bulb, velvety purple eggplant. What unites this composition, and Botero's still lifes in general, is its compositional coherence: here, the stable triangular structure of the arrangement, the evenness of its ambient light, the balance of even the most outrageously scaled objects. "When you see a still life of mine," Botero has remarked, "you will notice that the knives and forks, the fruit, the table, the napkins, everything is rendered in the same fashion, therefore the whole work radiates a sense of unity, harmony, and coherence. That is what communicates its essential truth."(5)
1) Quoted in C. Ratcliff, Botero, New York: Abbeville Press, 1980, 91.
2) Quoted in W. Spies, "'I'm the most Colombian of Colombian artists': A Conversation with Fernando Botero," Fernando Botero: Paintings and Drawings, Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1992, 155-56.
3) Quoted in G. Arciniegas, "An interview with Fernando Botero," Fernando Botero, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977, 53.
4) J. Sillevia, "Botero's Baroque," in The Baroque World of Fernando Botero, Alexandria, Va.: Art Services International, 2006, 26.
5) Ibid., 27.