Fernando Botero's disasters are ours too. From Colombia, a colonial country racked by violence and destruction for decades, Botero depicts images Southern Californians are all too familiar with.

One hundred of Botero's paintings, drawings and sculptures are on display through December at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

The rolling hills near Gorman could have easily inspired the landscape in the 1989 painting "The Picnic." In it a couple enjoys the outdoors; the man lays his cheek on the tablecloth across from two red nail-polished hands, one holding a drink, the other a cigarette. And in the distance - maybe fed by the Santa Ana winds - a plume of smoke rises from a mountaintop. The couple embraces nature's beauty, even as tragedy looms nearby.

In "The Earthquake" Botero turns the viewer into a witness of destruction in progress: colonial churches topple, wood balconies fall, a woman screams from a window for help. The buildings may differ from those destroyed in Northridge in 1994 or Long Beach in 1933 but the piles of rubble and lives lost are the same.

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Drug trafficking-related murder has put a stranglehold on Colombia in recent decades, similar to the gang and drug-related killing we see in the Southland's impoverished neighborhoods. In "The Wall (Execution)" Botero depicts a man falling as bullets pierce him and gives top billing to a principal protagonist in this drama, the bullets. The projectiles are have unsettling, and cartoon-like detail. As they float in mid-trajectory, they're equally harmless and deadly.


No reproduction does justice to the original artwork and that's particularly true for the Botero works on display at the Bowers Museum. Many of the paintings are large scale (some 6½ feet by 5½ feet). In "After Velazquez" in which he paints one of the Meninas - the vibrancy of the paint convinces the eye that it's looking at a brilliant fabric.

There are plenty of the fleshy, large portraits on display, the ones that have made Fernando Botero's work unmistakable in the last 40 years. His rotund aristocrats are painted on horses - a traditional colonial technique - some under the shade of banana trees, others with intricately coiffed hair. Are they on their way to their garden box seats at the Hollywood Bowl?

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