You've probably seen Colombian artist Fernando Botero's work. His style is easily recognizable. The forms are rotund, nearly bursting with flesh and dimension. Faces become moon-like, buttocks like the softest pillow you've ever desired to lay your head on.
The artist draws from and riffs on styles and theories from the Renaissance era of painting. Throughout his career, he has routinely copied—and satirized—masterpieces of Western art from Leonardo da Vinci to Jan van Eyck. Dude is prolific.
"When you get inspired by the painting, then you have to look deeply into the painting," Botero has said. "And then, especially through the strongest style, you can take possession of the subject matter of another artist and make an original work of art."
Botero, a documentary about the artist directed by Don Millar, comes to the Seattle International Film Festival this month. It is described as a "poetic documentary profile" in the press release. I went in expecting disembodied voice-overs, flickering images, readings from Botero's diary, and sensuous shots of his paintings and sculptures. I came out with the realization that "poetic" meant a hazy sense of time, fact, and objectivity.
The documentary plays like a highlight reel of the latter, more famous half of Botero's life, spending only 15 minutes on the first 20 or so years of his history. The artist went from being poverty-stricken and selling watercolors in a corner store in Medellín to being the most exhibited, most written about, perhaps most popular living artist. His work has graced all the major cities of the world: New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Milan. The documentary does not let you forget this.
A lot of Botero's work is satirical, easily accessible, and, in this technological era of the world, eminently meme-able. His Pope Leo X (After Raphael), with its tiny face and large head, is the perfect conduit for the "y tho" meme. But, because of this, he has received intense criticism from establishment-type people for being too accessible, too lowbrow, unserious, and not good. Using primarily his children as character witnesses, Botero leans heavy into supreme exaltation.
However, it is worth mentioning that the almost purposely dour and monotone art critic Rosalind Krauss is brought in to give an uneven sense of critical balance to the documentary. Her voice and rigorously opinionated approach to art ("I think Botero's work is terrible. I think his work is [like] the Pillsbury Doughboy") is cast in a party-pooping light, as if critics can't have any fun unless they're shitting on someone else's work. Which isn't true—we enjoy champagne as much as the next person.
Ultimately, one is left wanting a bit more humanity. Yes, Botero himself is commenting on various events in his life, articulating his approach to art. I find his work to be interesting and strange, fun and creepy—I think Botero is a big ol' weirdo. But with the aforementioned testimony from the children and various other praise-singing experts, the film lacks the nuance of a great profile documentary and seems more like a film that plays in the back gallery in a Botero museum.