Botero, Fernando - VM - Willem de Vink
Fernando Botero: Head of Christ
Superman or Man of Sorrows
by Willem de Vink
Our Western society is dominated by an obsessive attention to the body. The desire for a healthy, strong, and agile body is expressed, for example, in the fascination for superheroes. A generation is growing up with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Daredevil, X-Men, Avengers and other figures with bulging muscles and tight six-packs from the Marvel Comics. In that world hyperbole is the appropriate language. That is why Douglas Wolk claims in his book All of the Marvels (2021) that Marvel, with its accumulation of stories, heroes, and worlds, is the greatest work of art on earth.
Most of us would call the Bible the greatest. No epic has been told, translated, and pictured as often as the Bible. The central message of the Bible is quite different from the excessive violence that is poured out upon us in the stories about superheroes in super bodies. It is precisely the weak people in their vulnerable bodies who get a voice in the Bible. And even though Jesus healed the sick, compelled the powers of nature, and rose from the dead, he was in no way a superman, but on the contrary, he was a Man of Sorrows.
When Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the prisoners, and the sick in their battered bodies, he no doubt also does that with people who suffer from obesity. The work of Fernando Botero helps us to better relate to this. This Columbian artist specialises in paintings and sculptures of fat people, although he asserts that he only exaggerates the human bodily form. In any case he has presented Jesus several times in such a striking body.
Fernando Botero belongs, together with Diego Rivera, to the most famous visual artists from Latin America. He likes to play with volume in his work. Due to this his striking, round figures have something alienating and humoristic, while especially evoking pity. Botero´s very recognisable, unique style has become known as ‘Boterismo.’
Everything in Botero’s work breathes South America, also in his paintings where he depicts scenes from the life of Jesus. In 2010-2011 he made 27 oil paintings and 34 drawings about the suffering and dying of Jesus, collected under the name Via Crucis. ‘For centuries artists have been painting nothing else,’ he comments, ‘so I wanted to do so as well, to make it believable for today’s world and also for myself.’ Botero puts Jesus in bright colours in his own 21st-century reality. In so doing he paraphrases age-old themes. We see how the Messiah is beaten by an agent in a vivid green uniform, while a woman looks on from a red-coloured home. On another painting a green Jesus hangs on a cross against a New York skyline. The entombment also happens within a cityscape. ‘That is the world I know,’ says the painter. All his paintings are unmistakably ‘Boterismo,’ because everywhere Jesus seems to be suffering from obesity.
When we look at the portrait on the painting Cabeza de Cristo (The Head of Christ) that Botero painted in 1976, we see an almost round face. It appears even more round on account of the doll-like small nose, mouth, and ears. Jesus bears a crown of thin branches full of thorns that pierce his skin in rows. He closes his eyes. His face and body are splattered with blood. With his hand, his fat and pierced hand, he points to his heart, where he probably suffers most of the pain.
At first glance such a swollen head frightens us. We want to turn away from that chubby, dough-like face. But when we continue to look, Jesus automatically comes closer. His whole appearance has a childlike radiation that makes Him endearing. After a little while it is no longer difficult for us to feel empathy. Here is a Man of Sorrows whom we would like to place on our lap to comfort.
And with that we have grasped the effect of Botero’s special rendering of Jesus. For nobody wants to be fat and everyone who is too heavy suffers from his or her weight. But obese people do want to be taken seriously by others; they want to know that they are allowed to be there and be loved. This Jesus appeals to the viewer to satisfy that desire.
Botero forces us with his ‘Boterismo’ to identify ourselves with fat people, precisely what Jesus would have us do as He was no superhero in a super body, but someone who in his disfigured body came to stand next to vulnerable people. He inspires us to do the same. A body that gives and receives love lasts longer than a body that is trained to smack people. Art that pictures Jesus in the form of vulnerable people will continue to exist, even after the superheroes of Marvel have long been forgotten.
Fernando Botero: Cabeza de Cristo, 1976, oil on canvas, 185 x 179 cm, Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia.
Fernando Botero (1932) is a Colombian artist. Botero is one of the best-known artists of Latin America who makes very recognisable paintings, pastels, and sculptures. The connecting element is the heightened volume of the bodies. This provides his art sometimes with a comical effect, at other times with a touching effect. He takes his inspiration from South-American culture, but also from his predilection for the old masters, such as Raphael, Velazquez, and Uccello. Apart from everyday scenes, he also touches on injustice and social themes. Botero attended the Jesuit school in Medellin. After that he never let go of his faith, even though he does not feel bound by dogmas. He is critical of materialism and the art of our time.
Willem de Vink (Utrecht, 1957) is speaker, writer, and artist (drawings). His strip book Jesus Messiah has already been published in more than 200 languages. He also wrote the book Dit is liefde, Vincent. (This is love, Vincent). He recently published the book In het hoofd van de maker. Creativiteit, Kunst, Kerk (In the Maker’s Head. Creativity, Art, Church).
ArtWay Visual Meditation 16 October 2022