THE PAINTINGS OF ORLANDO AGUDELO-BOTERO:
A DAZZLING VOYAGE
Ut pictura poesis: “The making of a painting is like that of a poem.” Horace
Being perhaps the most intimately subjective of the arts, painting and poetry blend and harmonize naturally and spontaneously. This is probably why the poets have always identified with painting though we might lack the technical knowledge of such a demanding craft. More important are the emotions unleashed in us by design and color, perspective and subject. Anthologies in all languages abound with poems inspired by paintings as well as their creators. The great contemporary Spanish poet Rafael Alberti wrote an entire book on this sublime symbiosis, dedicated “To you, fictional reality of dreams./ To you, tangible plastic matter./ To you, hand, painter of painting.”
It is evident that working with the same ethereal materials, we poets can write of painting in a language vastly different from the obscure discourse of art critics, which sometimes seems invented to impress other critics. We rely more on sensibility and intuition than technical knowledge. We use more imagination and less erudition. It is with these credentials —layman in his craft and brother in his emotions— that I venture on this voyage into the painting of Orlando Agudelo-Botero, from his beginnings in the lush coffee belt of Colombia, born into a small-town family of twelve children, to his present stature as a consecrated artist in museums and art galleries throughout the United States, where he has lived and worked since 1968, and around the world.
“Motherland is our childhood,” writes Argentinean novelist Ernesto Sábato. Agudelo-Botero’s first years —his rural environment, solid family life, simple religious faith, his casual discovery of painting at an early age with its liberating influence and his development as a self-taught-artist— are leitmotifs that recur in his constant search for excellence. From this group I am particularly moved by three works. With great dramatic impact, in Madona Mía (1993), Mother Earth cradles in her ample roundness the fragility of man and his existentialist anguish against a background of lighted candles that convey a peace more human than liturgical.
Santafé de Bogotá, December 6th, 1989 (1989) is an almost abstract synthesis of the protectiveness of motherhood. The poignant majesty of the lone mother figure offering shelter and assurance to a child suggests that even amidst the physical and emotional devastation of terrorism, redemption and even mercy are still distinct possibilities to be realized on the most profoundly human level. The painting, named after the date of an act of terrorist violence in Colombia, utilizes its palette of reds, yellows and blues of the Colombian national flag with an intensity that boldly reverberates with both pathos and hope.
A composition probably inspired by the stained glass windows of the church of his childhood, La Familia I (1990) is a hymn in reds, purples, blacks, whites and golds to his early home. The mother, its epicenter, is surrounded by her three children drawn in irresolute lines. In the background, sketched in gold is the profile of a man, the father and final figure in the family portrait.
Religious and spiritual subjects make up this book’s longest section, and it’s difficult to choose the artist’s most stirring works. In the series Las Cruces, painted from 1987 to 1994, the artist uses the same classic composition of the traditional Christian symbol of the cross with variations of color and detail to express emotions such as hope, peace and solitude, as well as luxury, devotion and love. These unique crosses may inspire hours of meditation.
La Búsqueda (1993) shows us the back of an unclothed man created in a chiaroscuro with charcoal over gesso. His arms are outstretched as if reaching for something, and in the deep blue of the infinite we see, lightly etched when the paint was still wet, the face of God. Yet it is barely visible, merely an impulse, making the dramatic outstretched arms of humanity all the more poignant.
In Aleluya (1991), the artist pays homage to the forms of pre-Columbian cultures which permeate much of his work. This time a choir of figures, inflated with the roundness of Mother Earth and endowed with Indian faces, prays collectively, all painted in ochres and deep greens and blues lit only vaguely by candles.
Created by an artist who paints what he feels, not what he sees, Orlando Agudelo-Botero’s works reflect his own personal emotional spectrum with honesty and authenticity. In Uno (1988), the artist dramatically portrays the individual in a stark, almost abstract portrait. He has created the head and neck of a solitary figure using a trowel and gold paint against color fields of red and purple. The color fields create a strong spatial quality in the painting, where the human form stands alone before a vast void. By creating the human bust in gold Orlando seems to be commenting on the value and power of the individual in society today.
In María, María, María (1992), an unabashedly romantic piece in the Latin tradition, Orlando uses a similar composition with a much different result. In this work, he has created in high relief the image of a woman, her hair cascading downward and her hand in a near caress of her heart. Her gaze is skyward as she looks longingly at an eclipse of the sun.
Primitivismo (1992), from a series of works which also included Indigena, Retrato: Pablo Zaragoza, and Humano, was inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of America. Completed after excursions to the ancient sites of Chichén Itzá and Tulún on the Yucatán Peninsula and St. Augustine in Southern Colombia, these paintings recall the traditions of these ancient cultures where creative energies were joined to the forces of ritual and religion. These evocative works, drawn with an economy of style, are profoundly simple expressions of our humanity, linking ancient man and modern man. Distilled to their very essence, they are timeless and universal symbols of humankind.
Following my novelist’s instinct in search of a climax, I have saved for the end the part of Agudelo-Botero’s work which appears at the beginning of this book, for I felt necessary to identify the artist and his evolution before reaching the culmination of this important phase. To quote Horace again: “Pictoribus atque poetis quidlivet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas,” or “Painters and poets alike have always had the license to dare anything.” Our artist certainly knows how to dare, as shown in his latest stage of development. In Balance of Personalities (1995), our Colombian virtuoso uses the circle as a metaphor for the circle of life. The man’s face is a bipolar portrait showing both front and profile and suggesting man’s duality of nature. The lines extending outward from the man’s center recall the spokes of a wheel, and the faces poised at the edge of the circle will replace the original face when the wheel is set in motion, suggesting the balance necessary for harmony in our lives. This work is Orlando Agudelo-Botero at his best, and allows us to know him as a philosopher as well as a painter.
Whites and blues predominate in the masterly, circular composition of Balance: Understanding and Accepting our Nature (1995). The human form is set against Orlando’s rendition of the earth, itself enveloped in the deep blue of space. In a lotus-like position, the figure is in meditation, contemplating. Here, Orlando shows his daring by hollowing out the core of the human figure, drawing the viewer’s attention inward, for Orlando knows that acceptance and change come from within.
For a change of pace that displays Agudelo-Botero’s versatility, let us return to 1988 with Messenger of Peace, a refreshing composition in grays and golds simultaneously evoking a Greek sculpture and a Picasso drawing, but still with Orlando’s intensely personal seal. These images of peace, global unity and personal development are persistent themes in the artist’s oeuvre and dramatically distinguish him from his contemporaries.
And to close this chapter, Efigie (1990), is a work on canvas, dramatic in its simplicity, in which Agudelo-Botero uses the colors of the Colombian flag in order to convey to the people of his homeland a message exalting discipline, optimism and perseverance. Once again it is Orlando the philosopher joining Orlando the painter as he addresses the crisis of values in modern society. Sowing the seeds of personal responsibility, Efigie, like all Orlando’s works, transcends the barriers of age, race, religion and gender and speaks eloquently about the greater meaning of life.