Private collection, Miami
By the early 1980’s Fernando Botero had already become one of the most important artists to reach the international market. Years spent in Spain, Italy, France, Mexico, and the United States had gained him world-wide recognition and acceptance.
Born in Colombia (Botero says that he started drawing as a boy, mostly out of boredom) his passion for creativity, drawing, and painting quickly took him from his home town of Medellín, to the capital city of Bogotá, to his first trip to Spain at the age of 20. Faced with the works of the great European masters at the Prado Museum, the works of Titian, Goya, and Velázquez became his teachers. This first exposure to these formidable artists would become central to Botero’s development as an artist. While in Europe he enrolled at the San Fernando Fine Arts School in Madrid and the Academy of San Marco in Florence, both of which provided a strong classical training that is seen reflected again and again in the artist’s oeuvre.
After a short stint back in Colombia, Botero left for Mexico where he came face to face with the magnificent history of the Mesoamerican civilizations, reflected in the imposing pyramids and striking works of Pre-Columbian art. It was in Mexico, in 1956, that he painted Still Life with Mandolin, a painting that would leave an indelible print on the rest of his work. A simple still-life becomes massively monumental as the mandolin takes on heroic proportions.
Botero’s first trip to the United States came in 1957 where he presented his work at the Pan American Union in Washington D.C. and accepted a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in New York. This trip furthered Botero’s education through the works of Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning as well as the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School. He later returned to live in New York in the 1960’s and this marked the beginning of a period of true growth as he gained acceptance by the galleries, museums and collectors of the city. He left for Paris in 1973, keeping a New York home.
The years spent living between New York and Paris, mark a period of experimentation that produced a subtly subdued palette, as the one seen in this painting, Cuatro Músicos. There is little need for extravagant colors for the delicate variations in earthy browns, green, blue and red provide plenty of opportunity for our eye to dance around the subjects. Indeed, in Botero’s own words, “Using fewer colors makes a painting clearer, more legible.”
It has been said that the pictorial language of Botero evokes the musical language of Mozart. This is especially evident in his paintings of musicians. It is a subject that, along with happy scenes of couples dancing, the artist returned to often. To be sure, these pictures, full of life and movement, provide an ideal opportunity for Botero to create his distinctive compositions in which his very still and often frontal characters paradoxically play, dance, and sing, usually within a defined environment that gives context and frames their activity. His work is closely linked to his personal experiences, often relating to the pleasure of love, music and leisure, with a twist of humor and sentiment.
As with the mandolin painting done in Mexico, paintings and drawings of guitar players, flutists, violinists, singers are scattered throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Botero recognizes that the beauty of music is due as much to the instrument as it is to the musician. In fact, as the artist himself has said, “If I went to a remote place, in a short time I would get used to the silence and, most probably, would stop painting.”
Cuatro Músicos, painted in 1984, depicts four men playing the tuba, flute, violin, and piano, in a salon in which couples dance in the background. Sheets of music have fallen to the floor as the musicians furiously carry on their beat. In the foreground are two glasses, supposedly there for the musicians to sip between songs. Clearly there is a party going on in a bar or ballroom decorated with lights and pillars. In this work the instruments are as much a subject of the painting as are the musicians themselves. The artist has dedicated equal space, ensuring that proper homage is rendered to both.
Many of Botero's works have Colombia as a background. As he has said, “You always paint whatever you know best, what you experienced as a child and teenager. The world I work with is the one I knew in Medellín, and I have never painted anything but that.” In painting diverse genre scenes located against the backdrop of its landscapes, cityscapes and interiors, it is clear that the artist's final intention is to catch the soul of his country.
 Germán Arciniegas, Fernando Botero, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1977, p. 52.
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