Fernando Botero’s Rabelaisian Effect


The larger than life giants, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel roamed the European continent. Their inconceivable bawdiness engulfed Europe. Human fat splayed over the un-suspecting. Then waves of  intestinal excess battered impoverished lives. Now you know you have felt the deluge of the Rabelaisian effect.

Fernando Botero’s art didn’t exactly gush across the  art world by storm. But the affect his work had on the art world was one of surreal wonderment. For years famed Latin American writers Marquez, Fuentes, Llosa and more had been trying to interpret his works. But the truth is revealed only when you meet the man in person.

I have photographed Botero a number of times. Each meeting offered a millimeter of change. But each time I walked away with an arm’s length of rewards. So let’s begin with my first encounter in France.

I arrived in Paris in 1983 to photograph a number of artists living in Paris and the South of France. The list of luminaries: Cesar, Arman, Chagall, Dubuffet, Matta, Masson, Helion, Soulages, Tinguely, and Niki de Saint Phalle were almost the core of French art from the mid 20th Century. The art world had moved to New York at that time, but the galleries and museums that marked the best of Paris were true romance, true history. 1983 was critical for me. I entered hundreds of artist studios. I was getting an education through osmosis. I wanted to caress art. I wanted to see what my camera could see. Studios were the places I could dream in. I wanted to feel the imaginations of others. Many artists from around the world came to Paris to live in that history to feel the romance of the city.

I walked along the Rue du Dragon. For me at the time the 6th arrondissement was the center of Paris. Dragon is a famous street, home to great photographs and great art history. The Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s studio was there. He was “the catch” at that time. He was good and bad famous. Very much acclaimed and popular but with a bit of kitsch. His work was always a bit of fantasy for me, more than cultural dissection.

I arrived. Botero greets me with pleasantries, and initiates the conversation with, “you are going to appreciate my studio. It once belonged to Brassai”. Considering that Brassai was arguably the most famous photographer of the 20th century...I felt enshrined. I looked for the ghosts.

This day was part of a realized dream. Three to four floors of Botero was a bit overwhelming. It was great. Fat people, fat animals, fat fat fat surfaced in dozens of executed paintings and sculptures. There was so much to breathe in. I wanted to touch each and every piece. These are the kind of otherworldly experiences I had dreamed about.

We danced through the afternoon. The paintings and sculptures spun through my mind. I was trying to learn what fat meant. I naively asked. “What’s with all the fat people?”. Botero kindly made reference to culture, circumstances of lives and suggested the more bloated the greater the story. Rabelais lives in Botero.

It was fun to watch and listen and shoot my camera as if we shared a mysterious waltz. Fernando watched my moves, I watched his eyes.

I had accomplished what I was after. I thanked this fabulous man for a great afternoon. He kindly nodded “thank you maestro”. I wondered when I might have an elegant session quite like that again.

I ambled along the crooked cobblestone street towards the Seine...I was in Paris.