BY TIM JOHNSON
MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Nostalgic for his homeland, Fernando Botero,
the artist of
rotund figures and hefty sculptures, is making a donation of artwork to two
Colombian museums that is as grand and impressive as his remarkable subjects.
In one of the biggest art offerings in modern history in Latin
America, Botero is
giving a collection of paintings and sculptures valued as high as $200 million that
will transform the city of Medellin, where Botero grew up, and elevate a gallery in
the capital, Bogota, into an exceptional repository of impressionist and modern
The gift has startled many Colombians.
``This is an act of colossal generosity in a nation where social
philanthropy are very limited,'' Diners Magazine wrote recently.
Botero, one of the most popular living artists in the world, appeared
the reaction of Colombians during a five-day visit last month to his homeland -- a
place so dangerous that he is forced to live mostly abroad.
``It is moving when someone stops you on the street and says,
`Look, on behalf
of the Colombian people, I want to thank your for your gift,' '' Botero said. ``. . . It
is very thrilling when one is driving and stops at a corner and people applaud, just
Botero left Medellin for Madrid 48 years ago -- on a journey that
would take him to
the top of the art world. His paintings, filled with roly-poly bulls and horses, plump
princesses and prostitutes, always instantly recognizable in style and always
reflecting life in Medellin, have fetched as much as $1.6 million at auction.
The works being donated to Medellin include The Death of Pablo
shows the drug kingpin dying amid a hail of bullets on a Medellin rooftop in 1993,
and The House of Amanda Ramirez, a once-famous city brothel.
At 68, Botero remains in good health, spending his time in New
York City, Paris,
Monte Carlo and a small Italian town in Tuscany -- Pietrasanta, the site of several
foundries capable of making his huge sculptures, which weigh about 3,000
pounds on average.
But his love for Colombia remains undiminished.
``As a youth, he dreamed of Florence. As an adult, he dreams of
reflected Pilar Velilla Moreno, director of the modest, 119-year-old Antioquia
Museum in Medellin.
The gift reflects a profound desire by the now-wealthy Botero
to make a grand
gesture for his homeland. Among the obstacles was a government proposal to
collect 35 percent in customs duties and taxes on any art that Botero donated
from abroad. Eventually, the idea was dropped because it would have strangled
the project at birth.
A big boost came with a change of government. President Andres
office in August 1998, and Medellin's new mayor, Juan Gomez Martinez,
energetically supported the project.
To seal a deal for Medellin, Gomez offered to donate the former
City Hall, a
three-story Art Deco jewel built in 1929, to house the Botero gift. He offered to
spend $15 million renovating the building and paying for an adjoining block to be
razed for a vast sculpture garden.
``I took him the blueprints. He said, `This is the site. I accept.
I will give you the
works,' '' Gomez recalled, beaming at the memory.
On a recent sunny morning, as Botero toured renovation work at
examining floor tiles and quizzing architects amid the dust, Gomez looked out
from a third-floor window at the 46 properties soon to be razed.
``These buildings will all come down,'' he said, adding that bulldozers
within weeks to clear way for the large park.
By the time the mammoth project is finished by the end of the
year, 12 to 14 of
Botero's most prized large sculptures will decorate the plaza, and 65 new Botero
paintings and drawings will fill the museum, adding to the 18 paintings and 16
indoor sculptures he donated in the 1970s and 1980s.
``It is going to be something ultramodern, like a great U.S. museum,''
``It's going to be fantastic. It will transform Medellin.''
As Medellin fetes its good fortune, Bogota is doing the same.
In monetary and
artistic terms, the value of Botero's donation to the cultural wing of the capital's
Banco de la Republica, or state bank, is even broader and grander than that given
to his birthplace.
A special 12-room gallery in Bogota is now being prepared for
Collection.'' It will hold not only 87 of the master's own paintings, but also about
90 works from his private collection that encompass every major trend in painting
in the past century.
The gift includes four Picassos, 14 impressionist paintings (including
Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Degas) and works by Chagall, Ernst, Giacometti,
Miro, Klimt, de Kooning, Calder and Rauschenberg.
Botero believes he is adding to the artistic cachet of the capital.
``There's a national museum and some other museums, but there's
never been a
Picasso here, for example, or a Monet,'' he said.
STAYING IN TOUCH
Nostalgia for Colombia, mixed with pain at its narco- and guerrilla-related
and turmoil, evokes strong emotions in Botero. He is a voracious reader of
Colombian newspapers on the Internet, no matter where in the world he is.
The violence of Colombia has hit the artist personally. For years,
he would visit
several times each year, often spending weeks at his rural studio in the village of
Cajica, an hour north of Bogota.
``One day at 6 in the morning, eight people arrived asking for
me, and by some
miracle I wasn't there that day four or five years ago,'' he said. ``They took
everything I had. They took 22 paintings that I had there, and two sculptures. If I
had been there, they would have taken me.''
At about the same period, Botero received another shock. On June
11, 1995, a
huge bomb exploded in an open-air park in Medellin. It was hidden at the feet of
his outdoor sculpture, The Bird, and killed 23 people and wounded 200 others.
``This was so completely stupid,'' Botero said. ``When I learned
of it, I said leave
the [damaged sculpture] there, as a monument to stupidity.''
In January, Botero returned to Medellin to unveil a second sculpture,
The Bird of
Peace, placed a few yards south of the mangled, blast-damaged original
``I want this to remain as a monument to violence and the peace,'' he said.
``It hurts horribly not to be able to live here peacefully, especially
now that the
years pass,'' Botero said. ``I miss my country. I miss Medellin. I miss all that I
knew here as a child.''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald