The Miami Herald
July 24, 2000

Artist portrays violence in Colombia, stirs feelings


 BOGOTA, Colombia -- Fernando Botero, famed painter and sculptor of obese
 figures, has caused a stir with his first series of paintings that depict the violence
 lashing his homeland -- guerrillas and a drug lord, a massacre and car bombs.

 A corpulent guerrilla chief, Manuel ``Sure Shot Marulanda, stands oddly tranquil
 amid a jungle clearing in one painting, wearing his trademark green uniform and
 rubber swamp boots, a finger on the trigger of a submachine gun.

 Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar is shown reeling backward from a stream of
 police bullets as he tries to escape shoeless across a rooftop -- just the way the
 drug chieftain was killed on Dec. 2, 1993.

 La Mejor Esquina depicts Botero's horrific vision of a 1988 massacre in which
 gunmen opened fire on peasants dancing in a countryside bar by the same name,
 ``The Best Corner,'' killing 28 people.

 Although widely acclaimed as masterly depictions of Colombia's 35 years of
 violence by the Medellín-born painter, his portrayals of Marulanda and Escobar
 have stirred up some grumblings among countrymen.

 ``He has the complete right to immortalize whomever he wants, and the
 importance of these two criminals . . . is indisputable, [but] one is left with a
 certain unease, said an editorial this week in the Cali newspaper El País.


 Botero says the seven paintings are not a political commentary, but rather ``a
 reflection of the black folklore of my country, with all its violence, killings,
 kidnappings and massacres.

 ``I read obsessively about the horrible, unacceptable things happening there, and
 there comes a time I have to empty my mind of these images and paint them, he
 told The Herald last week in a telephone interview from his studio in the Italian
 town of Pietrasanta.

 The 68-year-old Botero has always painted Colombian themes even though he
 has lived abroad for 48 years. But he had never exhibited any works on the drug
 and guerrilla-fueled violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

 Botero said he painted the works over the past several years. Five will go on
 exhibit in October at a Bogotá gallery, and two others will go to a museum in


 News of the new paintings caused such a stir that the Bogotá magazine Diners,
 which published photographs of the canvases last week, was swamped with
 requests for copies by publications from as far as Germany and Argentina.

 The paintings appear oddly bloodless -- one blotch on the machete wielded by
 one of the killers in La Mejor Esquina, tiny marks on Escobar, who in reality was
 virtually torn apart in a hail of bullets.

 ``It's a rejection of violence in Botero's unique way, violence without hatred, said
 Pilar Velilla, director of the Antioquia Museum in Medellín, future home of part of
 his personal art collection, estimated at $200 million.

 The Medellín museum will get the paintings of Escobar and a car bomb, while the
 Bogotá gallery will get Marulanda, La Mejor Esquina, a second car bomb scene,
 a painting of a 1950s guerrilla movement, and a portrayal of the devastation
 wrought by a 1999 earthquake in the town of Armenia that killed 1,100 people.


 While few have seen the paintings in person, the photos published in almost every
 Colombian newspaper and magazine over the past week have sparked waves of
 praise and national pride, along with some misgivings.

 ``These are master works by a Colombian master, the best artist in the world
 addressing our sad violence, one television commentator gushed as he showed
 pictures of several of the canvasses.


 ``I was pleasantly surprised, said Oscar Collazos, one of Colombia's leading
 writers. ``These works are not about a political vision. It's more a matter of a
 sensibility impacted by the national tragedy -- war, terrorism, narco-trafficking.

 ``The images, perhaps distant and uncritical, point more toward the creation of a
 pictorial legend through the re-creation of the national myths of the current times,
 Collazos told The Herald.

 The El País editorial praised Botero as ``Colombian par excellence and ``the most
 important living painter in the world, but hammered away at his choice of

 ``What Botero has immortalized, as much as it hurts us, is our cursed reality, it
 said. ``There stand Don Pablo Escobar and Don Manuel Marulanda, painted by
 the master brush of our greatest artist, who immortalized them to the shame of
 Colombia and the honor (?) of our national art.


 Marulanda heads the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 17,000-strong
 leftist guerrilla movement accused of links with narco-traffickers and the
 kidnapping of hundreds of people, including children, to fuel its war coffers.


 Botero said he had heard some of the criticism, but defended the paintings as
 ``part of our dark folklore, just as Al Capone is part of the dark folklore of the
 United States.

 ``They are not a political commentary, he added. ``Marulanda and Escobar are all
 part of our dark history, Botero said. ``I had to paint them because they are,
 sadly, people of great importance for Colombia.

 Although Botero had long stayed away from depicting Colombia's violence, one of
 his works was involved in a 1995 terror bombing in Medellín that killed 23 people
 and wounded 200.

 The still unidentified bombers placed the charge between the legs of a huge
 Botero sculpture of a dove, the symbol of peace, that the artist had donated to a
 park in Medellín.


 ``They hid the bomb under flowers and detonated it by remote control, when
 everyone was around because there was a feast there, Botero recalled in another
 interview with The Herald earlier this year.

 ``When I learned about it, I said, leave that thing there as a monument to stupidity
 . . . as a monument to violence, he said. Botero later ordered a new copy of the
 sculpture placed next to the damaged one ``as a monument to peace.