FERNANDO BOTERO

Monumental is beautiful

by Victoria James

The young woman seated in front of McDonald’s, her massive haunches spread wide underneath her, looks at first glance like a cautionary tale on the perils of fast food. It would have taken a McBreakfast, a McLunch and a McDinner every day from birth to get her this big — all of them super-size, just as she is.

She looks too enormous to stand — and, in fact, it takes a crane to lift her.

Yet in this country that — like few others — fetishizes the superskinny, admirers have gathered around this ample young woman. Some are taking photographs, others reach out to touch her. She’s a monumental sculpture in bronze by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and 19 others like her dot the open plaza of Yebisu Garden Place, Tokyo, in a four-month-long celebration of the artist’s work.

A few smaller pieces by Botero are permanent installations around Tokyo, like the dog that is the mascot of Shibaura’s Granpark office complex. The Ebisu sculptures, however, are on an altogether different scale — the tallest stands 3.5 meters high, the heaviest weighs 1.5 tons.

It took weeks to truck and winch the sculptures into place in time for the “opening” on April 1, though the curious passing through every day have been able to watch each one being unveiled: the mighty Adam and Eve who stand at the main entrance; the dancing couple who waltz on a terrace; and the Sphinx that guards the main entrance to Mitsukoshi department store.

The concept of “public art” was relatively slow to catch on in Japan. Conservative, Western-style nudes predominated until, in the 1980s and ’90s, a wave of new thinking emerged and a rash of commissions followed. The economic slowdown soon put paid to that, but Yebisu Garden Place, completed in 1994, arrived just in time to afford a few pieces for itself — “Voice of the Heavens,” the large wind-sculpture suspended from the plaza roof, and a handful of those outdated Western nudes.

Botero’s massive figures, however, show just how slight — literally and conceptually — those derivative nudes are: No one is sparing them a second glance now that Botero’s beauties are lolling about the place.

It is their very scale, of course, that makes these creations so compelling, and lends them a beauty seemingly at odds with their inflated anatomies. They’re perfect exemplars of Botero’s stated philosophy: “The artist’s function is to exalt life, sometimes through sensuousness, and to communicate that to nature. One way of doing this — and it is not the only way — is through volume.”

“Volume,” achieved through the creation of realistic space, was the breakthrough artistic discovery of the Renaissance. Knowing that, the epithet one admiring critic bestowed on Botero — “the last great Renaissance artist” — begins to make sense. Prior to the 13th-century frescoes of the Italian artist Giotto, two-dimensional representation was exactly that — as flat as the surface it was painted on, without depth or perspective.

Botero, who was born in 1932 in Medellin, encountered Giotto’s work and that of his contemporaries and followers, Piero della Francesca and Uccello among them, in their home country. After his paintings won Second Prize at the National Salon in Bogota in 1952, he used his cash prize to travel to Italy, France and Spain to study the Old Masters.

Not long after his return to Latin America, in Mexico in 1956, Botero produced “Still Life with Mandolin” — the first painting in what would become his signature, larger-than-life style. He moved to New York during the ’60s, then in 1973 he relocated to Paris and began to turn his attention to sculpture.

In this medium, too, Botero stands firmly in the stream of classical tradition. “There are two concepts at work in sculpture,” he explained to one interviewer, “sculpture as a mass and sculpture as a form which defines space, which is very much like contemporary art. Historically, sculpture was mass until the 20th century, with very few exceptions. Masters such as Picasso and Calder blazed new roads. . . . They evolved beyond mass and eliminated it. I am interested in mass. I think that the most beautiful sculptures are Greek sculptures or Egyptian sculptures, which are massive.”

As with style, so with subject matter — some of the pieces in Ebisu draw explicitly on classical mythology. Leda lies back under the eager, web-footed embrace of Jupiter disguised as a swan; the same god, in the shape of a bull, bears Europa off toward Ebisu’s Taillevent-Robuchon cha^teau, perhaps for a romantic dinner date.

Then there’s Adam and Eve. Clearly, despite his churchgoing upbringing, Botero isn’t fazed by one question that taxed the brains of medieval scholars — namely whether the first humans, supposedly created by the hand of God himself, did or did not have navels. Fully 3.5 meters high, our primordial parents (plus bellybuttons) stand erect, naked and so as yet unfallen. Eve holds aloft a life size apple, dwarfed by her broad hand.

That such a small temptation could bring about the downfall of this huge, impassively powerful pair is a touch entirely typical of Botero. In the same way, the 1-ton “Woman With Mirror” gazes at herself in a regular-size mirror, barely able to reflect in its entirety a single feature of her face.

“Monumentality,” the artist once said, “has nothing to do with size.” Even a massive piece, if not monumental, will be lost in the surrounding space. Instead of mere size, “sculpture should have an internal idea and should conquer exterior space.”

Tokyo at last joins Paris, New York, Venice and Madrid in falling captive to Botero’s larger-than-life creations.