In 2006, “I found myself in a small town on the Pacific Coast in Mexico, when a small circus arrived,” Colombian artist Fernando Botero tells ARTnews. “I was excited, and I went that night and again the next day. They let me in—I saw how these nomadic people lived in trailers, doing their laundry outdoors and then performing before the audience.” Fascinated by what he’d witnessed, Botero spent the next two years sketching and painting the circus “nonstop,” he says. “Every aspect was an exciting subject matter, and I wondered how I had not thought before of the poetic possibilities of the circus.”
Botero’s series of 130 paintings and 50 drawings of the circus is now compiled in book form as Circus: Paintings and Works on Paper (Glitterati), with an introduction by Curtis Bill Pepper. Among the big-top personalities the artist depicts are acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers, clowns, lion tamers, and a band accompanied by a tutu-wearing monkey.
First exhibited at Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska in 2008, Botero’s circus works followed a two-year stint portraying victims of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In both series, the style is instantly recognizable as his and only his, with brilliant colors and emphatically rotund figures. “I am true to my convictions,” Botero says. “Powerful volumes and colors give prestige to the form.” The prison pieces are brutal, but even in the circus works the eyes appear vacant—the rare smile is merely part of a clown’s makeup.
Until recently, Botero—one of the richest artists in the world, with homes in Monaco, France, Greece, Italy, Colombia, and New York—would stand at his easel in solitude for up to ten hours a day, but that has been reduced to five now that he is 81. After every important series like “Circus,” he temporarily shifts his practice toward “the simplest things,” he says. “I always return to the still life.” A retrospective of Botero’s work is scheduled for May at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 24 under the same title.