A number of years ago, while attending a reception given for Botero in Medellín to celebrate his donation of a number of his sculptures to the museum, the artists recounted to me an anecdote that bears an important relationship to this painting. “When I was about thirteen years old,” said the artist, “I would go to several of the whorehouses in the red district in Medellín. I would talk to the prostitutes—who all seemed very old to me then (they were probably in their twenties). I was fascinated by them and really liked them. Many years later, when I had a large show of my work in Colombia, I received a letter from one of them with whom I had been particularly friendly. It was a love letter! I was thrilled and touched and it made me remember every moment of those days.” Botero’s ability to recall the most powerful memories of his youth and depict them in his art is a pervasive quality in his work that lends to it a curious poignancy mixed at times with melancholy.
In his monograph on the artist, Carter Ratcliff links Botero’s representations of prostitutes to his interest in Lucas Cranach’s images of single standing courtesans. The artist has stated that “At the source of [my figures of prostitutes] is my love for Cranach. All his courtesans have so much going on in the dresses, the jewelry, the hats.” In the La casa de las gemelas Arias, however, Botero has transcended his European inspiration and returned with affection to the brothels he knew in his youth. This is also seen in other related works including La casa de Ana Molina (1972) and La casa de Raquel Vega (1975). He has also created sculptural works with the theme of prostitution.
La casa de las gemelas Arias contains nine figures, all of whom from a seamless, intricately woven pattern of bulky yet delicate forms. Their sculptural plasticity is emphasized by the fact that they inhabit what appears to be a tiny room in which a bed and an armoire can barely fit. When crammed with people it appears nothing less than claustrophobic. It is a chamber redolent with the odors of tobacco, alcohol and the warmth of human bodies. In this steamy atmosphere the young women appear in various stages of undress. An older woman, the Celestina or madame of the house offers a glass of wine to her customers. One of the men drinks with great abandon, perhaps steeling his nerve in order to confront the experience of sexual union. His companion, the largest figure of the composition (around whose figure the rest of the painting literally revolves), appears vaguely sad as he holds a petite woman in his lap. She smokes a cigarette, remaining completely placid throughout the experience. The third male figure is all but imperceptible as he lies asleep under the bed, assuming virtually the same importance as the article of clothing and fruits that litter the ground. (Botero has stated: “I always like to place my things there so as to keep that section of the picture as active as possible.”)
Each of the figures is of a different size. The woman at the extreme lower right corner appears to be a dwarf. Short stature persons have made their appearance in other works by the artist, reminding the viewer of the impact on Botero of a scene he witnessed in 1955 when he saw a troupe of Spanish dwarf toreros perform a bullfight in Bogotá. Werner Spies commented that this disturbing event “increased [his] fascination with the solid, compact human form.”
An element of this painting which may pass unobserved by the casual viewer is the hand which pulls open the large curtain at the left side of the composition. It is as if a scene from a play or a tableau vivant were being revealed to us. This device recalls an analogous element in one of this century’s most important works of art, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907. In this painting, also a brothel scene, the women are displayed to us as a red curtain, also at the left, is swept open by an unseen force. While the emotional tenor of the two works is highly different, Botero obviously had the Demoiselles in mind when creating the La casa de las gemelas Arias. We might remember that one of Botero’s first attempts at art criticism was an article entitled Picasso and Nonconformity in Art which he wrote in 1949.
We have seen how Botero has connected his brothel pictures to the depictions of courtesans by Cranach. It is also significant to keep in mind that the La casas de las gemelas Arias enters into an age old dialogue with the many scenes of courtesans, prostitutes and brothel interiors in the Renaissance to the present. Works such as Carpaccio’s Courtesans of circa 1510, the various representation of similar figures by the anonymous painters of the School of Fontainebleau (mid 16th century), as well as the more famous nineteenth century images like Ingres’ harem scenes or Manet’s Olympia form important components of the visual heritage of which the La casa de las gemelas Arias partakes. In addition, we cannot discount the affinities with works of literary art that this important painting recalls. The parallel between the visual imagery of Botero and the sumptuously fertite description of this countryman and friend Gabriel Garcia Márquez have often been noted. Other Latin America novelists—such as Jorge Amado from Brazil—could just as easily have conjured up this same cast of characters as those seen in the La casa de las gemelas Arias. As the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa observed: “Every Latin American will find in [Botero’s] kaleidoscope of images certain feeling, dreams and modes of behavior that entirely typical of towns and villages throughout the continent. “
Finally, we must comment on the role of machismo in this work. Is Botero presenting us with a view of a place in which the male prerogative is dominant? Is this painting simply another image of male domination and subjugation of women? I believe that the truth is that the situation is just the opposite. While the men have come to the brothel to be sexually serviced by the woman, it is the women themselves who are in complete control. In fact, the males play a secondary role in the composition. One is distracted by drink another is asleep under the bed and the third—while forming the pivotal element of the composition—appears distracted and inattentive of the activity going on around him. The women are self-possessed, cool and alert to the situation. Thus the artist effects a gloss on the traditional machista aspect of his culture. While his self-proclaimed interest in sensual beauty and pleasure is suggested, his ability at wry social commentary (present in one form or another in nearly every image he creates) establishes this work as a masterpiece of ironic satire.
Dr. Edward Sullivan
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