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BOTERO (2018) review

January 2, 2020

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produced by: Don Miller and Hart Snider
directed by: Don Miller
rated: not rated
runtime: 83 min.
U.S. release date: January 3-9, 2020 (Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)

 

What put a smile on my face the most while watching “Botero” is that the subject of the film is not dead. At 87-years-old, Colombian figurative painter and sculptor, Fernando Botero, is still alive and creating works of art. Typically, when a documentary focuses on a famous artist, it’s usually because he or she has passed, but it’s a real treat to see Botero talking about his work and life, both in the past and in the present. In fact, while Canadian director Don Miller does cover some history, the primary focus of the film is to engage with where Botero is at today, which certainly makes for a more fascinating approach than a look back at an artist’s life.

I’m not the only one who thinks this is a big deal, since we can hear repeatedly within the first couple of minutes of “Botero” that he is “the only living artist” who has the greatest number of museum exhibitions, the greatest number of books published about him and the greatest international appeal, and the greatest number of people attending his exhibitions. These are just a few (of many) accolades we hear during an opening credits montage which reveal workers scrambling to prepare the artist’s paintings and sculptures for an indoor and outdoor exhibit.

 

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“Botero” then settles on a scene in a fancy restaurant in Aix-En Provence, France, where we find the artist surrounded by his three adult children – Fernando Botera Zea, Juan Carlo Botero Zea and Lina Botero Zea – as they listen to him answer their questions and recount stories from his past. Snippets from this casual chat with the family patriarch are sprinkled throughout the film and it’s so engaging that one could almost have an entire film revolving around this legendary artist’s children asking him questions.

From there, we learn some of the obligatory backstory of Botero, some of this information may factor in to a greater understanding of the man later on. He was one of three children born in Medellín, Colombia, to a hard-working poor family. His father died when Botero was 4-years-old and his mother took care of him and his siblings by working as a seamstress. These formative years is likely where Botero learned a consistent work ethic that he would eventually apply toward his passion: drawing, painting and sculpting.

If you’re like me and you only knew Botero from the recognizable proportionally exaggerated figures that appear in his paintings, then Miller’s documentary will shed light on some things you may not have known about Botero. Some of his works represent political criticism or humor, while others are simply a study of where objects are placed, all depending on the piece. Making a name for himself as a voracious painter, he manages to relocate to New York City during the rise of Pop Art where, despite criticism, Botero winds up receiving tremendous success. Miller includes photos and old footage from the 60s, which finds Botero walking around Manhattan or hanging out in his studio. This enriches the film and our understanding of Botero as much as the frank conversations we see in the present with the octogenarian.

 

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Besides his children, there are others who talk about Botero, primarily about his art, what kind of art he is drawn to and also his resilient work ethic. “The Renaissance for him is the golden era of painting,” states curator Dr. Rudy Chiappi, “where the focus is the proportions and volumes, the sense of mass of the paintings.” We hear how Botero considered the paintings of the 13th century to be flat and how he considered the works of the 14th century to be revolutionary. When Botero transplanted his family to Florence to study art there, it was during a turbulent time. “Florence was hard, but he didn’t care about the economic situation,” shared author/curator Ana Maria Escallon, “All he wanted to do was paint.”

On the flipside, it’s quote surprising to hear from a dissenting opinion. I appreciate the fact that Miller includes someone who despises Botero’s work, along with the expected praise we get from his family, authors and curators. When Dr. Rosalind Krauss, a faculty member of Arts & Archelogy at Columbia University, utters, “I think his art is terrible,” and then proceeds to liken Botero’s trademark rotund figures to the Pillsbury Dough Boy, I couldn’t help but find myself impressed as I smirked. Clearly, his Boterismo style isn’t for everyone – I actually prefer some of his earlier work and his still life work, moreso than the figures he’d become known for, but I still find his use of color and placement in his figurative paintings to be quite captivating. It’s rare and important to include a voice that contradicts the hagiographical tone typical of such documentaries.

The film barely touches on Botero’s personal life, specifically the women in his life, but that’s understandable considering the focus is on his art. However, one particular tragedy occurred in 1979 when his 4-year-old son, Pedro (whose mother was Botero’s second wife, Cecilia), died in a car accident, which devastated Botero and halted his art output while he grieved and recovered from his own hand injury from the accident. Like many artist’s dealing with great loss, Botero transferred his grief into a series of paintings that depicted his young son content and at play. It’s a form of catharsis that an average viewer back then probably wouldn’t draw a connection in a gallery, but it becomes one of the more touching moments of the film.

 

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Another significant moment in his life that I was unaware of was Botero’s Abu Ghraib series of paintings from 2005. When photos were popping up all over the news that United States soldiers had abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraid prison during the Iraq War, Botero was moved to immediately act. It started with a quick sketch on an airplane and would result in 85 paintings and 100 drawings depicting the images he and the rest of the world saw. Initially exhibited in Europe, the series would be shown at two locations in the States, but Botero declared he would not make any profit from the paintings and instead wound up donating them to museums.

Towards the end of “Botero” we learn that he met and married Greek artist Sophia Vari, described as “his true soulmate and partner, in everything and especially in art”. He remains with her to this day and the two reside in Paris and in Pietrasanta, Italy (a place where many artists reside) and footage is included that shows how close they are to his children and grandchildren.

Art historians probably won’t glean anything new from “Botero”, while those who only know the prolific artist for his signature exaggerated figures will walk away with an appreciation for Botero’s art and the artist himself. Miller’s documentary is beautifully shot and is an inspiring look at an world-renown artist who has followed turned his passion into a rewarding career.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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