Round orbs of orange-yellow fruit rest on top of a fuchsia textile, situated before a peach background. The spheres are excessively plump. It is as though they have been aerated and, if one were to accidentally drop onto the ground, it would not be surprising if the ball bounced right up onto the table’s surface again. These swollen spheres in question are part of Fernando Botero’s Oranges (2004, oil on canvas), which is one of 30 never-before-seen still life paintings currently on display at Dubai’s Custot Gallery.
Still life’s – images depicting mostly inanimate subject matter like food, cutlery and flowers – have their origins in Ancient Greco-Roman art, where they mostly appeared in mosaics and in wall paintings. It emerged as a genre in western painting in the late sixteenth-century in Northern Europe, gaining particular popularity in the Netherlands yet, by the late seventeenth-century, the French Academy ranked still life painting at the bottom of the hierarchy of genres. Despite this, the painting of still life arrangements have not dwindled, with the genre continuously being used for experiment by artists from Paul Cezanne to Vincent van Gogh. Botero’s foray into the genre is by no means new, but the way in which he has injected his signature curves is.
Born in Medellin, Colombia in 1932, Botero first produced still life paintings in the 1950s as a tribute to the Old Master paintings he was exposed to as a young student in Europe – he first went in 1950 to Madrid to study the work of Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya, before going on to Florence to study the fresco techniques of the Renaissance. Botero’s first still life – Still Life with Mandolin (1956) depicts a disproportionately plump stringed instrument, surrounded by equally fleshy fruit – it is not on display in Dubai, with all of the work at Custot created between 1980 and 2018, though there are several works that also include musical instruments. Here we see clarinets, mandolins and violins. Accompanying a guitar that is positioned at the centre of an al fresco meal in Picnic (2002, oil on canvas), a hand creeps in to remind the viewer of Botero’s sense of humour. The hairy mitt can be seen sliding into the frame in the lower left-hand corner, with a cigarette wedged in-between two stubby fingers.
While many of the paintings had been hidden away in Botero’s studio for years, Flowers (2018, oil on canvas) was painted especially for the exhibition – Botero’s first in the region – at the request from the gallery. In the painting a large bouquet is arranged in a tower that is reminiscent of a Marge Simpson beehive. The bouffant in this case however, is predominantly orange, with only a few flecks of blue making themselves visible here and there. The paintings are sumptuous and voluptuous, being comforting and intense all at once. The smooth inflated shapes and unexpected shifts in scale are cartoon life. Botero’s distinctive way of playing not only with proportion, but also with colour, can be seen in Still Life with Watermelons (1991, oil on canvas). A predominantly green image, the painting contains hints of pink that poke through the most minute of incisions made into the fruit. The fact that the visible pieces of watermelon flesh are so small is slightly comical considering that the majority of the objects in Botero’s images are usually enlarged to such an extent that they would easily be classed as caricatures.
Besides depicting inanimate objects resting indoors on tables, Botero also uses his still life paintings to play with reflection and perspective. Some images contain mirrors, while windows insert buildings into the backgrounds of otherwise wholly domestic scenes (like in Still Life, 2002). In Still Life (2003, oil on canvas), a window is ever so slightly open, giving the viewer a tiny glimpse into what might be lurking outside – in this case, a blue sky and some lush greenery. This is taken to a whole new level in another Still Life (2002, oil on canvas), where a man can be seen through an open door. The figure is walking in front of two houses, with a church’s spire in the background. Next to this, a mirror reflects the top of a long pink bottle resting on a table indoors.
In addition to the paintings, Custot is also displaying a number of watercolour works and pencil drawings, illustrating the preparatory stages before the construction of the oil paintings. Just as in the larger works, Botero’s signature spherical lines can be made out in the works on paper. While the oil paintings are larger-than-life and bold in colour, there is an innocence in the absurd roundness of the objects depicted in them while, in these smaller works, the colours are much less vivid, giving them an almost ghostly feeling.
Unlike many works of still life, which seem dull and tired, Botero’s paintings are vibrant, comical and begging to be touched. The exhibition at Custot succeeds in showing how the artist has returned to the genre again and again, bringing the viewer into a round, enigmatic, yet fun world.
Fernando Botero: A Still Life Retrospective is on display at Custot Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Unit No. 84, Street 6A, Al Quoz 1, Dubai, UAE until 10th February 2019