Colombian fat ladies hold Madrid in thrall

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The Independent Online
WHAT European elections? The big issue dividing Madrid is The Great Colombian Fat Ladies Debate.

Madrilenos woke up one morning this month to find 21 giant bronze sculptures, most of them stylistically obese reclining female nudes, dotted along the central Paseo de Recoletos boulevard. They are the work of Fernando Botero, a Colombian better known for his naive paintings of extra-rounded figures, including Franco.

The debate runs deep. Are the Fat Ladies works of art or a commercial enterprise by Botero and a Madrid gallery simultaneously selling his high-priced drawings as well as posters and cards?

Why were they placed - by crane - facing the busy avenue, forcing city authorities to fence off a bus lane and viewers to breathe in exhaust fumes? Traffic jams have worsened as bus, taxi and car drivers slow to catch a glimpse of a shining bronze breast or buttock.

Why did the conservative city government give preferential treatment to Botero, a native of Medellin, when Spanish artists would kill for such exposure? Which sculpture should the city keep, following Botero's decision to leave one behind? Indeed, should Madrid buy them all, estimated at pounds 5m for the lot? (That's for 17 sculptures. Apart from the gift, three have already been bought to decorate Spanish airports, including Madrid's Barajas).

Children scramble all over them. None of your pompous 'Do Not Touch'. Botero has encouraged viewers to fondle his works as part of the aesthetic experience.

Graffiti artists have daubed anarchic slogans on the bodies, notably around the genitals of one of the few male figures, known as the Roman Soldier. Then came a band of self-styled 'cultural guerrillas', a group of local artists and gallery owners who staged a protest in front of the sculptures. Carrying placards showing anorexic figures by Alberto Giacometti, they warned against 'the psychological damage caused by Botero's voluminous rubbish'.

Fernando Lopez Amor, the councillor in charge of the city treasury, launched a crusade on behalf of the nation's obese. Attacking the protesters' 'dangerous anorexic autism', he said he hoped a private donor might buy the sculptures on Madrid's behalf. 'In Spain, there is a splendid population of obese people who perhaps need a leader to protect against them against mass slimming campaigns,' he said.

After taking Botero to a bullfight and plying him with rioja, Mr Lopez said the sculptor would give the city a 30 per cent discount on the lot. But some Madrilenos think the city's rubbish lorries should haul them away.

(Photograph omitted)