A chance encounter in 2006 with a modest traveling circus in Mexico proved revelatory for the internationally acclaimed artist Fernando Botero. The humble troupe inspired a new series of whimsical paintings and drawings that would preoccupy the artist for the next few years. Having just finished an intensely challenging series depicting violence and degradation at Abu Ghraib Prison, Botero undoubtedly embraced the theme of the circus as a way of reengaging with joy, levity and humor that had permeated much of his earlier work.
The circus also allowed Botero to delve deeper into the fantastic. There is a suspension of disbelief on the part of Botero’s viewers 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 impossibly small spaces. Botero’s eccentric characters, always rendered in disproportionate sizes and ostentatious colors, thus seem right at home in the zany arena of the circus.
In this series, Botero presents us with both the drama of the performance as well as the wearisome behind-the-scenes view of the life of the traveling entertainer. With Tiger and Trainer (lot 38), Botero captures the climactic moment of the show in which a larger-than-life tiger jumps through a hoop held by his diminutive trainer. Yet in Circus Woman with Baby Tiger (lot 39), Botero takes us behind the curtain, revealing the matter-of-fact existence of the worker who cares for the tiger before it can become that majestic, leaping performer. Similarly, in Clown in his Trailer, (lot 40) Botero reminds us of the cramped, marginal quarters where the circus workers live behind the glittering Big Top.
Botero’s portrayal of the circus performer as laborer recalls fin-de-siècle interpretations of the genre by artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. Toulouse-Lautrec’s numerous drawings and paintings of the circus are decidedly unglamorous. Indeed, many of his renderings illustrate the drudgery of the rehearsal complete with exhausted trainers and unruly animals and devoid of an adoring audience (fig. 1). Picasso also chose to depict those quiet, informal moments beyond the spotlights when the circus entertainers were revealed for who they were--the working poor (fig. 2). Well-versed in the canon of European art history, Botero was surely aware of these precedents and no doubt sought to simultaneously associate himself with and depart from these masters.
There is an autobiographical element, not unlike Botero’s depictions of bullfighting, to be found in this series as well. Botero has often recalled that some of his greatest pleasures as a child growing up in Medellín were trips to the traveling Atayde Hermanos circus and the local corrida. There is thus a poignancy in these colorful delightful paintings as they are imbued with an elder artist’s nostalgia for days long gone.
An ideal subject that allowed Botero to look 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 an inimitable wellspring of inspiration. As he explained in his own words, “At the circus one finds colors, movements, poetry, expressions of the human spirit that one finds nowhere else.”
(1) Fernando Botero, quoted in C. Bill Pepper, Circus: Paintings and Works on Paper by Fernando Botero, New York, Glitterati, 2013, n.p.