The still-pudgy innovations of Fernando Botero

Botero 'Family' Columbian artist Fernando Botero is an exceptional case. He exhibits characteristics of conceptually innovative artists, but the pattern of auction prices for his works appears to be much more like that of an experimental innovator — rising with age.

To make the case even more complex, Botero’s career has recently taken a new turn, based on his outrage over the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The following Botero traits are typical patterns for conceptual innovators:

  • A style breakthrough that came relatively early in his career. In his early 20s, as his Web site states, “Botero discovered for the first time the possibility of expanding and dilating the volume of forms in his personal way.”
  • Use of preliminary sketches.
  • Paintings that refer to the works of earlier artists, including Rubens, Dürer, Manet and Bonnard.

Still, he seemed stuck in a rut — one pudgy figure after another — which is a risk for conceptual innovators.

Economist/blogger Tyler Cowen thinks Botero’s early works were his best, but that contrasts with a study of the careers of Latin American artists by economist Sebastian Edwards. He found a pattern of rising prices for 374 of Botero’s works sold at auction, with the highest values for pieces that Botero did in his 60s. That’s quite unusual for a conceptually innovative artist.

Botero's Abu GhraibIn his early 70s, Botero made a break from most of his earlier work. Outraged by American troops’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he created dozens of works depicting the events at Abu Ghraib. The new series is reminiscent of the mid-career breakthrough that conceptual innovator Pablo Picasso made with “Guernica,” another work that was triggered by an outrageous wartime event.

Political outrage can lead to provocative art. As economist David Galenson says, “It can jolt conceptual artists into doing something they’ve never done before.”

But are the Abu Ghraib works a high point of Botero’s career? “The Nation” art critic Arthur Danto calls them masterpieces. Unlike Picasso’s “Guernica,” Danto says, which is “a Cubist work that can serve a purely decorative function if one is unaware of its meaning, Botero’s Abu Ghraib series immerses us in the experience of suffering. The pain of others has seldom felt so close, or so shaming to its perpetrators.”

For Roberta Smith at the New York Times, the new works mark a distinct shift: “The Abu Ghraib prisoners are not his usual pneumatic inflatables. They are immense, but monumental; muscular and solid. It is as if Mr. Botero has turned for inspiration from Henri Rousseau and peasant art to the figures of the Laocoon and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. His prisoners are shown in a kind of majestic isolation in precise volumes of space. Defined by planes of gray, green and terra cotta, and by cagelike iron grids, these spaces evoke the Spanish Inquisition, images of Christian martyrs and the calm geometry of early Renaissance paintings.”

Philip Kennicott at the Washington Post disagrees. “Is Botero just playing Abu Ghraib dress-up with his Botero People? And isn’t there something opportunistic, or at least insensitive, in that? … These paintings leave you with the sense that two worlds have collided with very odd results.”

Auction prices probably won’t be available as a gauge of the Abu Ghraib works’ value. Botero hopes to donate them all to a museum.

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