According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite was born as an adult woman from the ocean foam. The most popular early Renaissance representation is perhaps Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1484–1486) commissioned by the Medici. In contrast to the highly idealized, prude and distant Venus, by 1520 Titian painted one of his most accomplished nudes, Venus Anadyomene (Venus Rising from the Sea) as a voluptuous woman wringing her hair as she comes out of the water, looking away from the viewer (fig 1). Except for the shell often associated with the figure of Venus, the painting, void of any symbolism, does not reveal much in terms of iconography.
The figure of Aphrodite emerging from the waters is a powerful theme also favored by academic painters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Alexandre Cabanel in the 19th century. Following in this tradition, late 19th and 20th century artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and of course Pierre Bonnard also painted their own versions of women bathing. Bonnard and Botero executed this subject in a distinctively different manner: the French master was a Post-Impressionist artist interested in the depiction of light while Botero can be considered in many aspects as an offspring of Pop. A close look at their individual body of works reveals a shared interest in the human body; a marked preference for intimate interiors, dining scenes and bathrooms. It was in the bathroom that Bonnard sketched his nude models in or near the bathtub, using a towel, combing their hair, looking at their own reflection on the mirror. Bonnard's nudes also inspired Botero to paint iconic compositions set in bedroom scenes such as: Rosalba and Los Amantes, in the living room, The Protestant family, as well as in the open air, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe all dated 1969.
Homage to Bonnard was painted in 1972 in his signature "deformed" style as he himself described it to critic Wibke von Bonin in an interview published by Germán Arciniegas in the mid 1970s. “Deformation would be the exact word. In art, as long as you have ideas and think, you are bound to deform nature. Art is a deformation. There are no works of art that are truly realistic. Even painters such as Raphael who are considered realistic are not. What I think is wrong is deformation for deformation's sake. Then it becomes a monstrosity.” (1)
In Homage to Bonnard, space is deformed by its reduction to a virtual cube. The fixtures of a modern bathroom are rounded and look as padded as a Claes Oldenburg inflated 1960s sculpture. The colors gracing the space, in yellows and greens frame this contemporary Venus coming out of the water, beautifully proportioned, her face delicately veiled by her own hair. The bather's skin, still wet, is elegantly modulated in a typical Bonnard pose, gently bending her torso to reach out to her right foot on the side of the tub with a white towel adorned with fine blue lines. On the floor, lies an impossibly small shoe and her black gown. The water still running from the faucet and the pink paper on the right are somehow not distracting. These few elements help anchor the mythological scene in a new setting, closer to us, perhaps a middle class modern house bathroom, possibly in his native Colombia.
When Botero was asked in the mid 1970s about the importance of museums, he quietly responded: “Museums are the only possible lesson. Now that all traditions are lost and nobody can tell you the secrets of those paintings, the only hope is the long and careful observation of the masterpieces. I often make copies of masterpieces, just to learn.” It is in the context of this long tradition of constant borrowing that it is necessary to approach the work of Fernando Botero. By studying old and modern masters Botero inserts himself into the long tradition of classical art. By paying a tribute to Titian and Bonnard, he successfully associates himself with the deep currents nourishing universal art.
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