New York

Fernando Botero, Crucifixion, 2011, oil on canvas, 81 1/8 x 59".

Fernando Botero, Crucifixion, 2011, oil on canvas, 81 1/8 x 59".

Fernando Botero

Marlborough | Midtown

Fernando Botero, Crucifixion, 2011, oil on canvas, 81 1/8 x 59".

The theme of helpless victim and arrogant victimizer recurs again and again in the art of Colombian-born painter Fernando Botero. From his earliest works, made in the 1980s, which deal with dictatorial power in Latin America, to his brutal 2006 paintings portraying torture at Abu Ghraib, Botero repeatedly addresses the theme of man’s inhumanity to man, the humiliation and violence human beings have perpetuated upon each other since time immemorial. This exhibition took as its theme yet another event charged with cruelty and suffering: the Passion of Christ. Throughout the series of twenty-seven paintings (and thirty-four accompanying drawings), Roman soldiers serve as symbols and instruments of authoritarian rule. It is Roman soldiers who arrest Christ in The Kiss of Judas, 2010, a Roman soldier who beats Christ in The Scourge, 2011, and a Roman soldier who stands astride Christ’s body in Jesus Falls the First Time, 2011. In these images and others, one can detect a clear parallel between the Roman soldiers and the militaries that dominated many countries of Botero’s continent, which beat citizens into submission and brutally tortured to death those who opposed their rule.

Intriguingly, Crucifixion, 2011, recalls Central Park, with Christ’s body seemingly set against a background of New York skyscrapers, bracketed by the Citicorp Building to his right and the Empire State Building to his left. The juxtaposition starkly equates commercialism in the United States with dictatorial imperialism: New York as the new Rome. The gigantic figure of Christ looms over the other figures, who are all the more diminutive because of the steep, Mannerist perspective—the damning perspective of God, as it were. Botero has always been a social critic; now he criticizes society sub specie aeternitatis.

Botero, of course, is best known for his fat figures; he has puffed them up, he claims, to give them sensuality. But their bigness and weightiness also signify their power. Seen in an art-historical light, they are Herculean—Hercules was a symbol of fortitude—and specifically call to mind the Farnese Herakles, a Greek sculpture of great girth and strength. But Botero’s paintings are revivals in more ways than one: The green of Christ’s crucified figure perhaps derives from medieval German altarpieces, in which the color indicates decay. The nasty mob in Jesus and the Crowd, 2010, would be welcome in Hieronymus Bosch’s rendering of the same scene or in James Ensor’s Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, 1888. Also, like many of the Old Masters, Botero handles hard scenes with a soft touch, evident in the sensitive lines in his drawings. Ultimately, though, Botero’s paintings derive their power from reminding us that suffering is never out of fashion—nor, for that matter, is traditional representation.

Donald Kuspit