Documentary Review: For “Botero,” it’s Go Big or Go Home

Fernando Botero stood out as “a figurative artist in an abstract era.”

Everybody wanted paint spatters, stylized geometric forms or soaked paper or cracked porcelain on their canvases. Here was a Colombian inspired by Renaissance masters painting people, animals and still-lives with a vivid color palette and in forms that didn’t require the viewer to do all the “interpreting.”

Then again, there was his “style,” which anyone recognizing his name instantly attaches to his name. “Volumetric” he calls it. He likes the fruit he paints in the bowl, the mandolin on a table, the cats, cardinals and canaries he paints and sculpts to have “volume.”

They’re fat. Round, rotund, comically exaggerated and often carrying the sting of satire, Botero’s style is a brand, as recognizable “Big Eyes” painter Margaret Keane’s. And yet, few treat his work as kitsch.

There’s a lone critic carping at the “cartoon” style of the “world’s most famous living painter” in the documentary “Botero,” an otherwise adoring biographical portrait of Latin America’s greatest artist. Dealers and curators and family members dominate this affectionate homage to a prolific artist who has dominated his era the way Picasso dominated his.

The film is built around an entertaining lunch with his three surviving children, laughing over wine, talking about his childhood and the many moves of his life, often accompanied by the sale of this or that work that financed his moves, from Medellin to Madrid, Madrid (by Vespa) to Florence, where he discovered deadpan Renaissance minimalist Pierro della Francesca, whose 15th century works he idolized and imitated.

Adding “volume.” Always more “volume.”

He went to Mexico City where the vibrant colors of Kahlo and Diego Rivera worked their way into his psyche, to New York where Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Canning Miller championed him — “THIS is ‘modern art!'”

And then, as he was on the rise, he left New York and took up sculpture, moving from Paris to Tuscany, just down the street from the marble quarries and bronze foundries that Michelangelo and his contemporaries made famous.

“A good artist looks for solutions,” one son remembers Fernando saying. “A great artist looks for problems.”

Director Don Millar’s film uses archival footage or Botero working, cut in with fresh interviews and chats with others in his circle, documenting his travels, his rise and his ways of repaying his home city — the formerly drug war zone Medellin — and Colombia’s capital, Bogota. Each is home to one of the two most important art museums in Latin America, both built by Botero, featuring centuries of great art (much of it he bought) as well as his own works.

A more critical eye might have noted how these monuments have a hint of vanity project about them. But as an artist, he sees himself “in conversation” with the great artists represented there, with Picasso and cubists, Rubens and El Greco.

But there’s no getting around how this workaholic’s audience-accessible oeuvre will endure after he’s gone (he’s pushing 90), and how these museums have permanently altered the cultural life in the cities that host them.

If you’ve ever been in the presence of a street display of his massive bronzes, and they graced Fifth Ave. and Madrid, Paris and pretty much anywhere you traveled to in the ’90s and early 2000s, you get it.

It’s all about “volume,” and Botero cranked that up like no artist of his time.

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Fernando Botero, Lina Botero, Juan Carlos Botero, Dorothy Canning Miller, Rosalind Kraus, Fernando Botero Zea

Credits: Directed by Don Millar, script by Don Millar and Hart Snider. A Corinth Films release.

Running time: 1:22

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3 Responses to Documentary Review: For “Botero,” it’s Go Big or Go Home

  1. Nick Frixos says:

    Very good article. Thank you. Botero, yes!

  2. Nick Frixos says:

    However, let me say, regarding the Gibney doc… (for some reason there are no comments allowed beneath your article), if your summation is correct, it’s simply a garbage-documentary. Factually proven again and again, and especially this week.

    • Which Gibney doc, “Agents of Chaos,” the one I reviewed, or “Totally Under Control?” Comments haven’t been turned off on either, and Gibney is as bulletproof a journalistic doc filmmaker as there is. He doesn’t make “garbage *

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